This past December, the Metropolitan Opera of New York, the only music-performance institution in the United States now prospering financially, presented the world premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles, a “Grand Opera Buffa in Two Acts” by the composer John Corigliano (born 1938) and his librettist William M. Hoffman (born 1939). Commissioned by the Met in 1979, Ghosts was the first new American opera to appear on its stage since the 1967 premiere of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Despite, or perhaps because of, its long gestation, the Met commitment to Ghosts was total: in addition to the relatively small amount of compensation ($50,000, it is said) for the composer and the librettist, the Met expended vastly larger sums—said to be over $2 million—on a lavish production. Nor did the company stint on name singers for the cast, which in the end included such highly regarded artists as the soprano Teresa Stratas, the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Home, and the baritone Håkan Hagegård. Perhaps most important, the conductor James Levine, the Met’s artistic director and one of the most powerful figures on the international opera scene, watched closely over the work’s progress, and gave much time to its preparation for performance.
It is easy to see why the Met chose to approach Ghosts so carefully. For many years now, the Met has been roundly criticized for the comfortable and safe nature of its choices in mainstream European repertory. The company’s leadership has been even more strongly criticized for its inattention to American opera.
It is not that the Met, over more than a century of existence, has failed to put on American operas: since World War I, for example, it has presented operas by (in addition to Marvin David Levy, mentioned above) Samuel Barber (Vanessa, 1958, and Antony and Cleopatra, 1966), Joseph Breil (The Legend, 1919), Walter Damrosch (The Man Without a Country, 1937), Louis Gruenberg (The Emperor Jones, 1933), Henry Hadley (Cleopatra’s Night, 1920), Howard Hanson (Merry Mounts 1934), John Adams Hugo (The Temple Dancer, 1919), Gian Carlo Menotti (Amelia al Ballo, 1938, The Island God, 1942, and The Last Savage, 1964), Bernard Rogers (The Warrior, 1947), John Laurence Seymour (In the Pasha’s Garden, 1935), and Deems Taylor (The King’s Henchmen, 1927, and Peter Ibbetson, 1931).
The list tells the story: Barber’s two operas have enjoyed a vestigial existence, but as for the rest their fate has been complete disappearance from the repertory and oblivion even in the minds of aficionados. And even where Barber was concerned, when the Met gambled on opening its new opera house at Lincoln Center in 1966 with an ill-executed performance of his Antony and Cleopatra, the resounding failure was heard all around the operatic and musical world.
The objection has often been made that the posh and plush surroundings of the Met are the wrong setting for American opera; and it is true that over the past three decades the leaner and sparer New York City Opera has had a better record than the Met with American opera. But even on this rather lower level of grand-opera ambition, the City Opera’s real successes, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (1954) and Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956), have sadly remained no more than touching evocations of American folklore. And though Six Characters in Search of an Author, Hugo Weisgall’s opera after the Pirandello play, was successful upon its premiere in 1959, the City Opera has never seen fit to revive it.
Away from the City Opera, the most talked-about American work of recent years has been Einstein on the Beach (1976), the Philip Glass-Robert Wilson collaboration, but even today, many years after its premiere, it still remains difficult to call this mixed-media extravaganza an opera. Nor do John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) seem to fit comfortably into any widely accepted conception of opera.
Regardless of this poor track record, however, the perceived need for American operas has only increased in recent years, as fear that the tradition of European masterpieces is being exhausted has begun to seep into the hearts and minds of even the most hardened opera-lovers. Excitement is the watchword; as kooky new productions of old familiar works fail to win permanent places in audience affections, efforts quite naturally turn toward new opera, and at least part of the time, and even for such an international institution as the Met, new opera means American opera.
Reinforcing the effort it invested in the performance and production of Ghosts, the Met also put a great deal of work into assuring a favorable reception for the piece. Pre-premiere articles were legion: Opera News, the Met’s interesting and glossy magazine (with a circulation of 125,000), devoted almost an entire issue to Ghosts, timed to appear on the date of the premiere, and also to serve as a guide for the broadcast two weeks later (on January 4); the previous issue had also contained a prospective survey of the work by the magazine’s editor, Patrick J. Smith.
In addition to the great interest of opera-lovers in Ghosts, a marked interest has been shown by the homosexual community. Both Corigliano and Hoffman have been publicly concerned with the issue of AIDS—Corigliano has written the very well-received Symphony no. 1 (1990) as a memorial to those who have died from AIDS, and Hoffman is the author of the Obiewinning play As Is (1985), which has been called by many an AIDS-play (though Hoffman, according to an interview with him and Corigliano in the Advocate, resents this description, finding it “anti-gay and anti-AIDS”).
Finally, further demonstrating the extent of its investment in Ghosts, the Met scheduled six performances in the several weeks following its December premiere, including a Texaco radio broadcast in January; the opera was also videotaped for broadcast next season on PBS.
The plot of The Ghosts of Versailles was suggested by La Mère coupable (“The Guilty Mother”), the third part (1789-90) of the French playwright Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, the first two parts of which are now world-famous in their operatic incarnations as Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. La Mère coupable is about two illegitimate offspring: Leon, the son of Cherubino and Rosina, and Florestine, the daughter of Count Almaviva and an unknown lady. The Count wishes to keep Leon from winning Florestine, preferring to give her instead to the villain Bégearss; the situation is saved by the intervention of Figaro, and in the end true love, just barely, wins.
For Ghosts, Hoffman superimposes a second play on the original of Beaumarchais: in this more weighty addition, the ghost of Beaumarchais himself falls in love with the equally ghostly French queen, Marie Antoinette, whom he calls “Antonia.” Bégearss is now an agent of the French Revolution, and desires to marry Florestine and send her family to the guillotine. Figaro and Susanna attempt to resist Bégearss, but Figaro, in an access of republican political virtue, does not want to save Marie Antoinette. Beaumarchais now attempts to change Figaro’s mind by restaging the queen’s trial, at which she was railroaded to her death. Bégearss is defeated and the Almaviva group escapes, but Marie Antoinette chooses to face her destiny, and once again goes to the guillotine, serenaded in death with the Marseillaise by the bloodthirsty crowd of “citizens” inspired by the Revolution; in recompense, she is united with Beaumarchais in Paradise.1
The entire opera is thus a melding of three worlds: in the words of Hoffman in the published libretto, “The world of eternity, inhabited by ghosts, . . . the world of the stage, peopled by dramatic characters, . . . [and] the world of history, populated by mortals.” Here, too, sometimes buried and often confused by intricacies of the original Beaumarchais combined with the even more complicated Hoffman, are two stories: a familiar one of young love and a less familiar one—at least in our liberal times—of the wretchedness and brutality of revolution. Bégearss is a murderous thug. Marie Antoinette is a sorrowing woman, aware of her faults, but nonetheless capable of love; so affectionate a portrayal of Marie Antoinette can hardly have been equaled since Edmund Burke’s threnody to the unhappy queen in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Her last words in the opera, as she confesses her love for Beaumarchais, show her in a hitherto unimaginably favorable light, and in so doing expose all the cruelty of political murder.
If Hoffman had confined himself to the opposition between love and revolution, he might have produced a marvelous libretto. Alas, however, there is much more here than love and revolution: there is the whole world once called buffo and now, I am afraid, simply called camp. In Ghosts, the height of the buffo element is the Turkish scene—actually a reception for the British ambassador at the Turkish embassy in Paris—at the end of Act I. This was required (or so an interview with Hoffman in Opera News tells us) by Corigliano. As Hoffman puts it in the interview:
We were doing an opera suggested by an 18th-century play, and all music written in the 18th century, as far as John knew, had Turkish scenes in it. He had to have it. I very blithely said yes, but it took me a year to figure it out.
Aside from the accuracy of Corigliano’s understanding of “all music written in the 18th century,” and Hoffman’s difficulty in implementing his composer’s request, the results, as performed by the Egyptian singer Samira, are pure farce:
I am in a valley and you are in
I have no she- or he-camel in it.
In every house there is a
I am quite aware that the combination of buffo and tragedy is a staple—to cite merely the most famous case—of the greatest operas of Mozart. Cosi fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and even The Magic Flute all contain ridiculous as well as deeply moving elements. And so, too, do Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos. It is possible to view this combination of antithetical elements as providing a higher dialectical synthesis, and in this way more closely approximating life, which as we know hardly shows itself to us in a consistent way; it is also possible to say that librettos so marked by the inclusion of opposites throw an even heavier burden on the composer than he might otherwise have to bear. And so the ultimate responsibility for The Ghosts of Versailles, as always in opera, ends up with the composer.
But before I discuss Corigliano’s music, a word must be spared for Colin Graham’s production of the work. As is so often the case in these days of poor singing and loss of confidence in the ability of the artwork itself to triumph, the production was an extravaganza. Remarkably for an opera set in Marie Antoinette’s tiny theater at the Petit Trianon, the entire dimensions of the Met’s cavernous stage were used. Characters flying in from the vast spaces at the top of the stage; backdrops of immense staircases mounting what seemed like hundreds of feet into the stratosphere; huge false-front buildings being pushed around as if they were weightless; the Almavivas escaping at the end of the opera in a hot-air balloon swung across the back of the stage; a chorus of revolutionaries; a giant representation of a Turkish Pasha singing at the end of Act I out of a mouth seemingly a foot wide, and finally erupting with a flash of fireworks from his enormous turbanned head; and, rather more sinisterly, a vivid representation of a sadomasochistic orgy with the villain Bégearss tyrannizing his young servant Wilhelm with a riding crop.
Everything, as they say in the theater world, “worked”; in other words, everything successfully called attention to itself, taking the maximum amount of attention away from the music. If it was the Met’s intention to compete with such London/Broadway musicals as Cats, Les Misérables, and The Phantom of the Opera, it certainly succeeded.
Ultimately, though, it was with Corigliano’s music that The Ghosts of Versailles failed. Genius, it is sometimes said, will out: faced with a clumsy libretto, a poor production, even a bad era for the writing of music, a genius will find a way to transmute difficulties into art. But there is little in Corigliano’s past career to suggest that he possesses the incandescence that triumphs over every contextual adversity. Long before his “AIDS” symphony (my title, not his), Corigliano’s first claim to fame was in the composition of music pleasant enough to be accepted by mainstream audiences, and just spicy enough to avoid the charge of reaction so damaging to traditionally minded composers; an example is his Tournaments Overture (1965).2 Here the music is mildly dissonant, jaunty, tuneful, and rich, but overall more rich than tuneful; the orchestral scoring is effective, in the sense of giving each section something “important” to do. The whole effect of Tournaments is of movie music, vaguely American in melody but nevertheless eclectic, written to complement a nonexistent film.
In contrast, Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto (1977), though still melodically American, seems to have lost the quality of idle joy. Much of it is very noisy and frighteningly busy, but much also seems lost in thought, and perhaps for that very reason the work makes a rather sober impression, even in the fast and furious passages of the first and last movements.
The “AIDS” symphony, written more than a decade later, quite naturally displays neither the jauntiness of the Tournaments Overture nor the sobriety of the Clarinet Concerto. Instead, it substitutes a sonic rage full of jagged dissonance, funereal outbursts, evocations of insanity, and disheartened dirges; what had been joyously or soberly American in melody and action before has now been discarded in the angry service of mourning.3 The intensity of emotion results in a portrayal of AIDS as a universal cataclysm, a holocaust of our time.
This Corigliano composition stands largely in an earlier tradition of American symphonism, the tradition of lonely grandeur; it evokes the atmosphere of William Schuman’s Symphony no. 9 (1968), subtitled “The Ardeatine Caves,” written to commemorate Nazi atrocities against Italians, Jew and Christian alike.4 If Schuman (born 1910) has written a work that is finer and more satisfying than the Corigliano, it is not necessarily because of a greater sincerity of feeling, but because of Schuman’s ability—now gone, it seems, from American composers—to employ, with magnificent self-control, a fully integrated musical style, rather than the cafeteria style (including a quotation from a tango by the Spanish composer Albéniz) so tempting to Corigliano, and for which he is so much admired.
This by now fully-developed cafeteria style is perhaps the first problem one notices in listening to The Ghosts of Versailles. Here there is no longer anything of the solid bedrock of American symphonism. The music runs the full stylistic gamut, backward, from the electronic sounds of Darmstadt in the 1960’s to the melodies of conventional late-19th-century grand opera and late-18th-century musical slapstick; there is much suggestion of Mozart, including an adaptation of the first two bars of “Voi che sapete” (“You who know”), Cherubino’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro. Similarly, the musical techniques include traditional writing for a full orchestra, along with synthesizer sounds and such avant-garde devices as unsynchronized writing for orchestra and voices. But whatever the musical means which Corigliano chooses to employ at any particular moment, his music often sounds as if it has been written not to set the words, not to enhance them, but merely to occupy the same space in time. Especially in Act I, there are great stretches of parlando writing, a kind of musical declamation, in which many words in a row are sung on the same note, thus attempting to serve a quasi-melodic function.
For example, Figaro’s patter song in the middle of Act I is a damp squib modeled both on Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” in The Barber of Seville and on Leporello’s catalogue aria in Don Giovanni. But unlike the models, Corigliano’s version is slow in pace, and not half so witty and amusing as a similar tour de force in another work perhaps derived, however distantly, from Beaumarchais: the comic opera Der Barbier von Bagdad (1858) by the now-forgotten German composer Peter Cornelius.5
The next major event in Ghosts after Figaro’s aria is the “Aria of the Worm” of Bégearss, based on a poem written by the late-19th-cen-tury composer (and librettist for Verdi), Arrigo Boito. The music for this statement of the eternality of the worm, and by implication of evil, completely lacks the vitality of Iago’s functionally similar “Credo” in Verdi’s Otello (also to words by Boito, after Shakespeare). Just as important, Corigliano’s formulaic and lumpish music for Bégearss also lacks the symphonic originality and power of Verdi’s for Iago; as a result, what is universally evil in Iago becomes merely sadistic, at once disgusting and forgettable, in Bégearss.
The Turkish scene at the end of Act I is on one level, of course, a send-up of 18th-century operatic convention. But it must be remembered that those musical evocations, for all their humor in tune and story, were based on the bitter memory of just how far the Turks actually did get into Europe in the 17th century. In Ghosts, this bitter memory has disappeared, and all the mock-Oriental sounds are merely an excuse by which the production can vamp the audience with spectacle and farce. The music itself, including a horrendously out-of-tune and otherwise deformed rendition of “God Save the King” by the “Turkish” musicians, remains prevailingly slow-moving, and when not slow-moving, relentlessly iterative. Even the hoped-for showstopper, Samira’s lament, seems more languishing than languorous.
Before Ghosts was actually premiered, the talk coming from those who had seen the work’s score and heard the rehearsal tape (made by singers with the orchestra parts performed on a synthesizer) discounted Act I for its all-too-obvious lack of musical vitality and invention. But Act II, so the talk went, was on an altogether higher level—moving, melodic, and operatic in the best sense. Certainly the libretto, with its emphasis on the love of Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette and the tragedy of her frame-up, might well have supported the writing of such fine music. In the event—and aside from the omnipresent invocation of Mozart—little could be heard from orchestra and singers alike but a pointless straining after climaxes and the kind of nostalgic longing for a perfect past that was brought into contemporary music by the Alice compositions, based on Lewis Carroll, of David Del Tredici.
In Act II were all the trappings of grand opera, including elevated sentiments and ensembles galore. Lacking only were melodies with the capacity to move an audience and remain in the listener’s heart and mind. Here are Hoffman’s lofty words for Beaumarchais, describing a future life with Marie Antoinette as if the Revolution had never taken place:
Vast theaters play our visions,
Salons ring with unheard-of
And there are new fabrics,
Dyed inconceivable colors,
And new kinds of roses, tulips,
And new industries,
Powered by wind, water,
And new sciences—
And Antonia lives!
Corigliano can manage nothing with this other than his usual parlando settings, and the orchestra contributes only unfocused and apparently random noises. When in a duet between Rosina and Susanna, some melodies seem about to emerge, the snail’s pace robs them of any effect. A quintet with Florestine, Rosina, Susanna, Leon, and Almaviva, which later becomes a sextet with the addition of Marie Antoinette, hardly has any forward momentum at all, and its melody is merely an outward convention, with no outpouring of feeling. Finally, in Corigliano’s setting for the moving final words of Marie Antoinette, all pretense at melody flees, and we are left with the mere manner, rather than the content, of song; the highest requirement of opera, that at the climactic moment the music subsume the words, and so replace them, remains totally unsatisfied. Here is all the style of grand opera, and precious little of the substance.
It seems to me that Corigliano’s music fails in more than its thinness, its lack of distinctiveness and memorability; it also fails adequately to differentiate among specific characters. There is fast music and slow music, loud music and soft music, busy music and static music. But with the exception of the villain Bégearss, whose music (as in the Worm aria) has a certain crude force, the characters sing what might be called pluggedin, or prefabricated, music.
As a result of Corigliano’s deficiencies in musical portraiture, I did not come away from the performance of the opera (I attended the opening) with very strong feelings about the contributions of the performers. The two exceptions were the tenor Graham Clark, as Bégearss, who did give a powerful impression of a sadomasochistic brute; and the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Home, who has always been counted a highly serious artist but who drew from her camp role as the Egyptian singer every drop of farce and foolishness. The singers’ English diction was as clear as could have been expected; and they struggled heroically to sing the notes musically, even when the notes were, as was often the case, unsupported by the orchestra.
The success of Ghosts with the largely partisan audience was extraordinary. At the premiere, the cheering, both for the composer and for Marilyn Home in her comic role, was deafening. Part of this response was no doubt due to the work’s appeal to the special taste for stage business and spectacle so characteristic of today’s opera-lovers. In contrast to the audience reaction, the press reviews have been mixed, though with few exceptions upbeat: a rave in Newsweek, a semi-rave in Time, an ambivalent review in the New York Times, and a generally unfavorable one in New York. The most praise has come for the production, and the most criticism for the music; the review in Time captures this split quite well:
If the audience at Ghosts . . . wearies of the attenuated, ectoplasmic string sounds that emanate rather too frequently from the pit, there is always something to watch onstage. This show never quits.
Curiously, and despite the clear evidence of the written words, the general impression is that the reviews of Ghosts have been marvelous. It is as if everyone with a stake in music and opera has decided to put the best face on everything connected with this work: the audience came to the premiere prepared to like it, the reviewers were mostly gentle with their reservations, and operagoers, no less than readers, are now convinced that Ghosts is a hit.
How is one to explain this? The answer, I think, is simple, albeit disquieting. The Ghosts of Versailles was from its inception widely perceived as the last hope for new American opera, and indeed for new opera in general. It is now realized that, for all the hoopla over them, Philip Glass’s opera-tableaux and John Adams’s political tracts have fallen flat, and so has any remaining interest in new European opera. (Glass and Adams will no doubt be performed for a few years more, because the production pipeline is long and its contents move sluggishly. The Met, for instance, will soon be doing a Glass work on Christopher Columbus.) But Corigliano, unlike the minimalists Glass and Adams, is a “real” composer, and the Met is by far our greatest opera company; if together they cannot produce a lasting success, who can? Just because the audience for opera—and the enormous apparatus responsible for producing opera—is so highly invested in it as an art form, the verdict on Ghosts just had to be favorable. As several people in the opera world indicated to me after the premiere, “If this thing succeeds, there will be other American operas to follow—and maybe some of them will really be good. If Ghosts fails, that’s the end.”
If, however, as I believe, The Ghosts of Versailles is indeed a failure, is this failure the end of the search for American opera, or for new opera in general? The answer to that question depends on the condition not so much of American opera as of American music. It cannot be too often repeated that opera depends on music, and that attempts to make up for musical insufficiency by theatrical artifice and dramatic ingenuity, though they may distract viewers, will not in any long-range sense change their minds.
The great years of American music—from the 1930’s to the early 1950’s, the years of the maturing of Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, David Diamond, and William Schuman, to name only four—were years of symphonic, not operatic, composition. Were serious American music once again to flower, and were it to turn its attentions to grand opera, there would almost certainly be new American works that we might claim with pride. In the meantime, we do wrong to wallow in self-deception and blind hope.
1 The foregoing summary of The Ghosts of Versailles is based on the “Brief Synopsis” of the opera contained in the Metropolitan Opera program book.
2 An LP recording, which I have not heard, of the Tournaments Overture was available on Louisville 771. I have heard the work on a Chicago Symphony broadcast from its 1985 European tour.
3 The Corigliano Symphony has been recorded by Daniel Barenboim, conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is available on Erato CD 2292-45601-2.
4 The Schuman Symphony was first available in the 1970's on an RCA LP, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, as RCA LSC-3212. More recently, it was available on CRI LP SD 477.
5 Cornelius's enchanting and unjustly ignored opera was available some years ago in an excellent LP recording conducted by Erich Leinsdorf and with Oskar Czerwenka in the title role; my copy is on EMI Electrola 1C 147-01 448/9. For the full flavor of the great patter aria in the Cornelius, however, it is necessary to hear the virtuoso performance by the German bass Georg Hann (1897-1950); it was available some 40 years ago on a long-playing 78 RPM recording, Deutsche Grammophon 72012.