Back when I was studying music as an undergrad, I first learned that as well as The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, the two Pierre Beaumarchais plays that were adapted into famous operas, there was a third, The Guilty Mother, that in 1991 was adapted into an opera called The Ghost of Versailles. Naturally I was deeply curious to see said opera, and so was happy to go to the Wolf Trap Barnes yesterday, where they were putting it on for their young artists to sing in. In the lecture beforehand they talked about its history, including that it was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and that it isn’t performed very often, something they chalked up to the initial production being a lot of trouble to put on; they were using a version first orchestrated in 2009 to demand less musicians and such.
What perhaps I should have realized was that such an opera, done to suit the Met, especially in 1991, was not necessarily going to be a very good one.
But I don’t think anyone should have been expected to anticipate what writers John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman would do with The Guilty Mother. Apparently, according to our lecturer, they found it too sad, and so decided that instead of really adapting the play, they were going to set a version of it during the Reign of Terror, and write a framing story around it where Pierre Beaumarchais, as a ghost, falls in love with ghost Marie Antoinette and starts to alter his own composition to prevent the revolution and prevent her death(there is no explanation for how that is supposed to work). Never mind that such a thing is practically an insult to the memory of a man whose plays were very much protesting against the ancien regime, even if his relationship to the French Revolution itself got more complicated. The whole Free Marie Antoinette plot then proceeds to take over what should’ve been the story of The Guilty Mother, and the opera in general, and really, she is not who the audience came here for, but the composers seemed not to have realized that.
In the process, the characters from the world of Figaro get greatly altered, until Count Almaviva is practically unrecognizable, Susanna isn’t much better, and while Figaro manages to maintain his trickster persona, he suddenly loses most of his rebelliousness against his masters and their peers. To top it off, the plot of the opera is barely coherent, while the music relies on references to older and better operas for most of its high points, although admittedly the modern-style aleatory opening is rather cool.
As with their production of The Marriage of Figaro staged last month, Wolf Trap’s young artists all sang the material competently enough, without any particular standouts. The set made creative use of space is staging the world of the ghosts and the world of Figaro, but their presentation of the Turkish Embassy was cheesy, to say the least.
There is, apparently, a 1966 French operatic adaptation of The Guilty Mother as well, but it seems to have gone into obscurity. This opera seems likely to do the same, or at least it ought to. Perhaps we shall at some point see a better adaptation of this final Figaro play, but I fear this claptrap will block that. Which truly is tragic.