The Ghosts of Versailles at the Wexford Opera Festival

On the 18th October I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to see a full, public dress rehearsal of “The Ghosts of Versailles” at the Wexford Opera Festival. The opera was attended by its composer, John Corigliano and its librettist, William M. Hoffman.

The action in the opera is rich and extremely unusual. The story weaves artfully between the afterlife and the fictional world of an opera (“the opera within an opera”). In the afterlife, we meet Marie-Antoinette, her husband Louis XVI and their court. Marie-Antoinette laments her death and does not seem to accept what happened to her. She re-enacts her beheading and is tormented by the cruelty and injustice of what happened to her. The other ghosts are much more at ease with their lifeless situations, although they are bored without the distractions they were used to in life.

That is why they jump at the chance when another ghost, Beaumarchais, the author of the three Figaro plays suggests an opera. He is in love with Marie-Antoinette and can’t bear to see her so unhappy. He plans to stage a play in which she is saved from the guillotine by Figaro. In saving her in the play, Beaumarchais tells everyone that he will save her in real life and rewrite history.

The problems begin when the characters of the play stop bending to Beaumarchais‘ will and developing a will of their own. In an attempt to reign in his unruly characters and convince them that they must save Marie-Antoinette, Beaumarchais himself enters the world of the play.

Once this barrier is broken, all of the ghosts find that they can enter the colourful imaginary world.

Being seated four rows from the front, I was afforded an excellent view of the actors, the sets and the costumes. The costumes particularly struck me as something to write home about and I’m sure every time I’ve spoken of “The Ghosts of Versailles,” I have raved about them. To begin with, they more than anything separated the afterlife from the world of the play, although the style of both was firmly rooted in the 18th Century. A palette of grey, black and white was used in the wardrobe of the ghosts, as well as in their makeup. It was startling how haunting they all looked in their pallor. The only colour used was red, and sparingly. The eye of the spectator was drawn to the red glittering areas, which signified how the characters met their end. There were glittering stab wounds, shimmering head injuries and gun shot wounds and red neck pieces, symbolizing decapitation. Notably, Marie-Antoinette does not wear any red for most of the opera.

The costumes in the world of the play, however are bursting with jewel-bright colours, shining fabrics and stunningly made dresses. When we enter the house of the Turkish Ambassador, we are provided with a feast for the eyes when Samira, a Turkish singer seranades us. Everyone from the core cast to the dancers are clad in rich and sumptuous colours and patterns. It is, without a doubt the best wardrobe I have ever seen on stage.

At times the music is what you might expect from an opera written in the 1990s, and yet there were more than a few pleasant musical surprises. In the beginning the music is discordant and eerie, almost unpredictable. It frames the mood of the afterlife flawlessly, as the ghosts sound like they are crying out. Some beautiful motifs are carried out through the play, such as Marie Antoinette’s “Once there was a golden bird” motif, which forms the basis of her powerful and chilling aria “They are always with me”.

“Once there was a golden bird,
In a garden of silver trees,
From the courtyard could be heard,
The laughter of women at their ease.”

To contrast with this, the music in the world of the play is altogether much more melodic and what one might term ‘traditional’ for opera. Many of the themes from the actual opera “The Marriage of Figaro” are explored and visited during the action of the play and there is, of course, much more laughter and up-tempo music.

This contrast further serves to immaculately separate the two worlds in “The Ghosts of Versailles.” Between the lamenting, eerie notes of the afterlife and the jovial and tuneful music of the play’s world, the viewer always knows exactly where he or she is.

As for the acting and quality of the singing in the Wexford Opera Festival/St Louis production – I’ve never seen anything like it in Cork, that’s for sure. While the whole cast and chorus were flawless, there were a few who shone even brighter. Maria Kanyova delivered a chilling and heart-breaking performance as Marie-Antoinette. Christoper Feigum, who played the character of Figaro, was quite a powerful and charismatic presence on the stage. He is completely perfect for the role of Figaro in this play. Other notable performances included Laura Vlasak Nolen as Samira, the Turkish singer, and Dominic Armstrong as Count Almaviva.

This production opened on the 21st October and will wrap on the 30th October 2009.


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