Timing is everything, as artistic director Francesca Zambello reminded Glimmerglass Festival attendees at the opening night of The Ghosts of Versailles. As audience members took their seats in Cooperstown, NY, on the evening of July 13, it was already the next morning in France – the 230th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. This was no accident, and Jay Lesenger’s production of John Corigliano’s sole opera will travel to the Château de Versailles in the fall, after the lucky Cooperstown crowd gets it first.

Yelena Dyachek (Marie Antoinette) and Jonathan Bryan (Beaumarchais) © Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival
Yelena Dyachek (Marie Antoinette) and Jonathan Bryan (Beaumarchais)
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

For better and for worse, timing has played a big part in the history of this particular work. It caused a stir when it premiered at the Met in 1991, the first new opera commissioned by that company in a quarter century. Yet it has been almost that long since it last returned to the repertory there, after a planned revival was deemed too costly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Signs continue to emerge suggesting this arresting music drama might still get its due. The first complete recording of the score, made at LA Opera in 2015, won a Grammy, and productions have begun to crop up here and there. Lesenger directed the opera at Manhattan School of Music in 2012, and his production for Glimmerglass seems like a continuation of that earlier assumption, on a slightly larger scale.

If the opera has always had one barrier to success, it’s William M Hoffman’s occasionally confounding libretto, which marries a buffet of opera buffa tropes to a somber purgatorial framing device. As Marie Antoinette and her train of executed aristocrats languish in the boredom of the beyond, the playwright Beaumarchais seeks to entertain the gentry (and win the queen’s love) by improvising an opera based on the little-known last work in his Figaro trilogy, La Mère coupable. Scenes of revelry alternate with moments of palpable sorrow, as Antonia (as she's called here) longs to return to the land of the living. Similarly, Corigliano’s score bounces between cheery pastiche, prickly atonality and gorgeous harmony.

Brian Wallin (Count Almaviva), Ben Schaefer (Figaro) and Kayla Siembieda (Susanna) © Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival
Brian Wallin (Count Almaviva), Ben Schaefer (Figaro) and Kayla Siembieda (Susanna)
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

Lesenger handles these tonal shifts with grace and precision and, for once, the demarcations make sense. The opera-within-an-opera, with opulent sets by James Noone and costumes by Nancy Leary, could be any repertory revival of Le nozze di Figaro at any company around the globe. But the ever-present leering of the titular ghosts, coupled with Robert Wierzel’s foggy, grey-flecked lighting, never allows the audience to forget the solemn subtext. The gaiety created by Beaumarchais is an illusion; the tragic truth still stands.

Just as the director worked dramaturgical magic onstage, conductor Joseph Colaneri whipped Corigliano’s porous score into shape in the pit. On opening night, the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra played with the lightness of a chamber ensemble, with particularly piquant contributions from the nimble woodwinds. Yet when Corigliano called for brass explosions or jutting violin arpeggios, Colaneri and the musicians delivered.

The cast, culled almost entirely from the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program, contained more than a few singers to watch. Yelena Dyacheck brought a sense of dignity and regal grandeur to Marie Antoinette, which made up for occasional spread in her high notes when she put pressure on her supple soprano. Jonathan Bryan flaunted an attractive lyric baritone as Beaumarchais, and he and Dyacheck generated tangible heat. Although Louis XVI has little to do, bass-baritone Peter Morgan made a notable impression with his few lines.

Christian Sanders (Bégearss) and ensemble © Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival
Christian Sanders (Bégearss) and ensemble
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

Ben Schaefer delivered Figaro’s dexterous aria with practiced ease; surely it won’t be long before he graduates to the real thing in Mozart and Rossini. As the slimy Patrick Honoré Bégearss, who sings the famous “Aria of the Worm,” Christian Sanders revealed a ringing tenor that seems destined for distinction in character roles. Mezzo Kayla Siembieda displayed a rich tone and bell-clear diction as Susanna, and soprano Joanna Latini made an elegant Rosina. Her duet with Cherubino (mezzo Katherine Maysek), “Look at the green here in the glade”, was ravishing.

The extended pastiche that closes the first act, set in a Turkish embassy and reeking of Orientalism by today’s standard, has never really worked. It still doesn’t here – rather, it stops the opera cold – but mezzo Gretchen Krupp has some kitschy fun in the role of Samira, a sassy snake charmer. Her big voice and bigger personality will take her far.

In the end, even the most beautiful work of art cannot bring the dead back to life. History takes its course, and Marie takes her turn on the scaffold. But resurrection is possible in opera, as this gorgeous Ghosts of Versailles proves. It’s all in the timing.

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