Despite an expensive and acclaimed première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991, John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles has received very little attention over the past 20 years. Peter Gelb had high hopes of mounting a revival once again in 2010, only to be hampered by the woes of 2008’s economic crisis. Because of the large forces involved, it was surprising to hear that the Manhattan School of Music’s opera program would be launching a three-performance run of the opera at its small and underwhelming Borden Auditorium.
Low expectations, however, only helped to raise enjoyment levels as the MSM program displayed a wealth of vocal and design talent. Because of the venue’s constraints, MSM presented John David Earnest’s chamber-orchestra reduction (created with Corigliano’s recommendation), which helped to fit most of the orchestra in the cramped pit and removed the on-stage orchestra used in the Met’s original production—also aiding the singers in their projection over the otherwise thick and ethereal score.
However, the vocal highlight of the evening belonged to two of the actors caught in the opera’s play-within-a-play: the Countess Rosina and her maid, Susanna, performed by Rebecca Krynski and Kaitlyn Costello-Fain, respectively. Singing of the stress that their marriages have brought them, the actresses sang with an incredible sense of nuance, with complementary vocal timbres that only strengthened each other’s lines as they dovetailed in exquisite harmony.
Given Borden’s small stage, Steven Capone’s set design was inventive throughout, especially as the action moved between the Queen’s theater and the production of Beaumarchais’ Figaro opera. Great use was made of extensions on the wings of the stage, allowing the ghosts to witness the internal play from afar.
Thanks to the refitted wings, the opulent scene at the Turkish embassy was able to take over most of the stage, with a harem of dancers accompanying the entertainer Samira’s famous aria. Bringing a great sense of Salome-like athleticism to her small role, Rachelle Pike became part of the dance troupe herself. Unfortunately, fatigue seemed to set in quickly, and Pike’s lower register became increasingly swallowed as the aria gained in ferocity.
Aside from some general vocal fatigue in the final third of the opera, the largest complaint with the production stems from Corigliano’s own score. Whereas the first act triumphs with its balancing act between Versailles’ ghostly string harmonics, bombastic percussion, and dramatic vocal lines pitted against the Figaro opera’s Mozartean neo-classical pastiche, the second act lacks much of that diversity. Once Beaumarchais enters his own opera in order to win the heart of Marie Antoinette, Corigliano’s own label of “grand opera buffa” is lost, slowing down the pacing of the opera’s final hour. The energy of the student orchestra was better suited to the buoyancy of the Figaro opera, with the spectral sounds of the opera’s last scenes sounding under-confident and vague at times.