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Deconstructing Figaro: LA Opera Brings 'Ghosts of Versailles' to the West Coast

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Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, John Corigliano's 1991 English-language opera The Ghosts of Versailles celebrates and parodies the two popular "Figaro" operas in the classic repertory, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. With both of those to follow later this season, LA Opera is kicking off a "Figaro Unbound" trilogy with its own wonderfully excessive west coast premiere production of Ghosts, which we suspect will prove to be a company signature piece for years to come.

Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette) and Pierre Beaumarchais (Christopher Maltman), the 18th-century author of the original "Figaro" stage plays, are among a party of ghosts languishing bored in the theater of the Palace of Versailles. Beaumarchais is in love with the queen and creates a new "Figaro" opera not only for her amusement, but to save her from the guillotine by rewriting history itself to absolve and liberate her. Throughout the first act of Ghosts, we watch scene after scene from Beaumarchais' new posthumous creation as an opera presented on stage inside the Ghosts opera. All of these set pieces cleverly, indeed riotously, spoof the Mozart and Rossini "Figaro" operas, as well as Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio set in a Turkish harem. After intermission, when the Figaro character (Lucas Meachem) refuses to follow the story line that Beaumarchais intends, Beamarchais writes himself into the opera within the opera and takes the stage to try and set things right.

The production design team of Alexander Dodge, Linda Cho and York Kennedy create clean contrasts between the domain of afterlife Versailles and the world of the staged Beaumarchais opera within the opera. The ghosts of Versailles float through a dark, ethereal black-and-white haunted palace, while the "on stage" characters inhabit a series of brightly colorful milieux. Both of these realms are spectacularly realized. Mobilizing a cast of dozens, director Darko Tresnjak doesn't skimp on either the farce or the existential romance inherent in Corigliano's score and William M. Hoffman's libretto.

Racette imbues Marie Antoinette with a tragic dignity that stands out against the wild comedy of the opera's first act and the foreboding onset of the French Revolution in the second. Meachem presents a charming quasi-Figaro figure throughout the proceedings, and his performance of the introductory Rossini patter aria parody is spot on. Guanqun Yu is in especially fine voice as Rosina, a recurring heroine from both of the "Figaro" operas. Broadway superstar Patti Lupone closes Act One with a show-stopping turn as an Egyptian singer astride a pink elephant in the Turkish Embassy parlor.

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More than 20 years after its New York debut, The Ghosts of Versailles has still only been performed in a handful of cities around the world so far, but Tresnjak and company make a strong case that the work is finally ready for its close-up. Expect to see this production become one of LA's cultural exports.

LA Opera's The Ghosts of Versailles runs for five more performances, Sunday through March 1, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion downtown.