With an expensive stage set that rivals the royal opera house in Versailles and a large cast that includes a headless Marie Antoinette and a rabid army of French Revolutionaries — as well as an exotic temptress portrayed by a certain Broadway star who enters astride a hot-pink elephant — L.A. Opera’s production of The Ghosts of Versailles at the Chandler Pavilion is a visually stunning affair.
Strong vocal performances add emotional poignancy to Darko Tresnjak’s direction of composer John Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffman’s playful 1991 opera, which is very loosely based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1792 play, The Guilty Mother, and draws in characters from the French playwright’s related earlier works, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. In fact, Beaumarchais himself (played with dashing verve by baritone Christopher Maltman) becomes a character when he attempts to literally rewrite history and bring his beloved, beheaded Marie Antoinette (an icily desolate Patricia Racette) back to life.
Complications ensue when one of his greatest creations, the irrepressible servant Figaro (sung with robust charm by baritone Lucas Meachem), stops following the script and derails Beaumarchais’ carefully laid plans. The setting alternates between Antoinette’s ghost kingdom and the elaborate opera Beaumarchais pens to enchant the queen, much as the overall mood segues surprisingly successfully from self-conscious parody to aching pathos. The action, meanwhile, plays out against the backdrop of the French Revolution, albeit in a vaguely historical fashion that caricaturizes the revolutionaries as disheveled, hectoring savages.
The Ghosts of Versailles is far more of a sentimental fantasy than a political satire, and several of its most affecting — and effective — musical parts are the romantic duets and solo arias. Making her L.A. Opera debut, soprano Guanqun Yu appears poised for bigger roles as she imbues Antoinette’s ally Rosina with a forceful radiance. As Florestine, soprano Stacey Tappan casts aloft a beautifully pure, delicately ethereal tone that sometimes quivers like a theremin.
Tenor Robert Brubaker (as the villainous Bégearss), mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer (Figaro’s wife, Susanna) and Joshua Guerrero (Count Almaviva) also have charismatic voices and personalities, but it’s Patti LuPone who turns heads when she’s towed onstage atop a giant plastic pink elephant and purrs a nasally droning, pseudo-Middle Eastern spellbinder during the opera-within-an-opera’s madcap Turkish reception. She’s only upstaged when a blonde valkyrie in a stereotypical Viking helmet emerges from a chaotic, colorful swirl of aerialists and belly dancers (who are decked out in designer Linda Cho’s fantastic, lavishly detailed costumes) and dourly declares, “This is not opera! Wagner is opera!”
Composer Corigliano blends Romantic classical tradition with more modern sounds, such as the eerie chimes and disembodied, jackal-like choral voices that signify the ghost world. His evocative mood-making doesn’t always coalesce into satisfyingly memorable songs, but conductor James Conlon wrings every bit of palpable vibrancy from each swooning swoop of strings and groan of stormy brass.
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L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Sat., Feb. 7; Sun., Feb. 15; Wed., Feb. 18; Sat., Feb. 21; Thurs., Feb. 26; and Sun., March 1. (213) 972-8001, laopera.org.
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