The Ghosts of Versailles

The Ghosts of Versailles


Count Almaviva



Giaochino Rossini

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais


MarriageofFigaro.jpgThe Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro are two of the most performed and popular operas in the repertoire.  Persons of my generation are familiar with the music, if only from the cartoons of the esteemed one Bugs Bunny.

The Rabbit of Seville

barber of sevilleIn the world of opera and its audiences, the characters of Figaro, Susanna, Rosina, and Count Almaviva are very well known.  The plays of Pierre Beaumarchais have been set to music by several composers, and the operas of Rossini and Mozart are still in the top ten performed operas of every season even to this day.  Rossini set to music the play of Beaumarchais entitled “The Barber of Seville”, and it is a beloved masterpiece of the bel canto operatic style.  When Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte collaborated to create “The Marriage of Figaro”, little did they know that they would create an opera that would be popular two hundred years after its premiere.  

Pierre Beaumarchais actually wrote a trilogy of plays centering around the character of Figaro.  The third play is entitled “The Guilty Mother”, and has been set to music by Frenchman Darius Milhaud, and also plays a central role in American composer John Corigliano’s opera “The Ghosts of Versailles”.  Corigliano was commissioned in 1980 to create a new opera for the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera in New York city, his hometown.  The anniversary was celebrated in 1983, but work on the opera by Corigliano and the librettist William Hoffman stretched on for seven years, well past the initial deadline.  “The Ghosts of Versailles” was finally premiered in December of 1991.  

ghostsI am one of the world’s biggest fans of the music of John Corigliano.  His Symphony No. 1 was premiered in 1990, and the recording of that work has played on my CD player and digital music collection countless times since then.  It was already a piece I cherished in 1992 when “The Ghosts of Versailles” was broadcast on public television in America.  I parked myself in front of the television, and recorded the entire performance on my VCR to a VHS tape.  (Those readers under the age of 25 can google search what a VCR and VHS tape are.)  

Sadly, I was an instrumental music student at the time of the premiere of Corigliano’s opera.  I loved the music for sure, but at the time was completely unfamiliar with the world of opera.  I didn’t know “The Barber of Seville” nor “The Marriage of Figaro”, much beyond the Bugs Bunny cartoons.  For the audience at the Met, there were beloved characters and familiar friends returning inside Corigliano’s works.  For myself, I surely missed much of the meaning in the dramatic I was enjoying.  

Recently I have enveloped myself in the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and am much more familiar with “The Marriage of Figaro” than I have ever been in my life.  This has led me to enjoy the complete “Barber of Seville”, and also long to revisit “The Ghosts of Versailles” knowing that it was in part based on the third play of the Figaro trilogy.  Earlier in my music study, I had to face the sad fact that opera is expensive.  Recordings of complete operas were very expensive, and video productions even more so.  Language is a constant barrier for me, so librettos and translations are essential to my study, or at least videos with subtitles.  All of this was an obstacle to becoming familiar with even the standard repertoire of the opera house, let alone new works.

I am very happy to report that I have recently enjoyed the service at Metropolitan Opera on Demand.  This is a wonderful collection of operas in video and audio recordings available through the website of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  They graciously give a seven day free trial of the service, which is available for a monthly subscription or individual performances available for a one-time rental.  As you can imagine, the very first performance I enjoyed was “The Ghosts of Versailles” in the premiere run from over twenty years ago.  
I am also happy to report that I am much more familiar with “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro”  now than I was in 1992.  Beaumarchais “The Guilty Mother” appears as an opera within the opera during “The Ghosts of Versaille” and the quotes of music from Mozart are absolutely delightful.  I enjoyed the video on a much more substantial level now than I did originally, and both Hoffman and Corigliano are to be commended for their masterpiece.  The production is so elaborate that few opera companies have undertaken a production of the work since its initial run at the Metropolitan Opera.  I am happy to report that the work was given its West Coast premiere in 2015 by the Los Angeles Opera, and I truly wish that it receives more performances in the future.  

Come Now My Darling

The Worm

Samira, The Turkish Entertainer

The Music of Language

The Music of Language

The biggest hole in my education is the knowledge of other languages, besides my native English.  Seriously, it is a wide gaping expanse that you could drive a truck through.  I know just enough Italian, German, French or Spanish to start a bar fight in some of the best pubs and cafes in Europe.  My lack of fluency in languages really slows down my study of operas, where the music is adding so much meaning to the words being sung, words I cannot comprehend without some provided translation.  Fortunately, librettos with English translation are easy enough to find for popular operatic works.

IMG_1280What I have found is that not all translations are created equal, nor are they meant to serve the same purpose.  Some of the most commonly encountered translations are those seen in subtitles on video, or supertitles projected above the stage during live opera performances.  These are usually invaluable to my quick understanding of what is going on at a given moment of the drama.  They are however, not without flaws.  The translations are made to be concise, to be read quickly and give an impression of what is being sung.  One wants to watch the performance, not be glued to reading the projected text.  Sometimes, the complete spirit of the libretto is not expressed in supertitles, and worst of all, sometimes the punchline of a joke is projected before it is performed on stage.  There is an art to the timing of subtitles and supertitles.

The standard sort of printed translations are found in opera shops or provided with recordings.  These give a more complete prose translation of the text, but often without a certain inflection or soul of the original.  Nuance and texture are often lost, and so much of the drama portrayed in the music is in the nuance of the text.  This is where the composer is giving his interpretation and portrayal of the dramatic action.  Oh what an advantage, to be a native speaker of the original language!

The absolute worst versions of translated text are those intended to be sung in English, for an opera created in Italian or some other language.  The words are given in English, but mutated, malformed and distorted into lines of text that fit operatic melodies composed for another language.  The results often murder the meaning of the libretto, all in service to creating a rhyme and rhythm to fit the musical line.  As much work as it is for me to read a synopsis, follow a libretto with translation, or glance at the super titles, I only want to experience an opera in the language it was composed.  There is nothing like the original.

To give an example of the varying translations, here is the original Italian text of Figaro’s first aria in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Figaro:   Bravo, signor padrone!
Ora incomincio a capire il mitero,
E a veder schitto
Tutto il vostro progetto.
A Londra, e vero?
Voi ministro, lo corriero,
E la Sussanna–
Segreta ambasciantrice.
Non sara, Figaro il dice.

In the the edition published by Dover publications in Three Mozart Libretti, the translation by Robert Pack and Marjorie Lelash reads like this:

Figaro: So that’s your game, my Lord!  Now I’m beginning to understand the mystery, and to see your plans all too clearly.  So we’re going to London?  You as minister, I as courier, and my Susanna — as secret ambassadress.  You’ll never succeed– Figaro has spoken!

Met bookA similar, but not precisely identical translation is found in The Metropolitan Opera Book of Mozart Operas:

Figaro:  Bravo, my lord and master.  Now I’m beginning
To understand the mystery … and to see all too clearly
Your entire scheme: So we’re off to London are we?
With you as the minister, me as your courier and Susanna as
Your secret ambassadress…
Well that shall never be: Figaro has said so.  

j-d-mcclatchyJ.D. McClatchy has taken a slightly different approach to translating the libretti of Mozart’s operas in the book Seven Mozart Librettos, A Verse Translation.  McClatchy recognizes that an opera libretto contains sections of both prose and verse (i.e. poetry).  He has rendered what was verse in Italian, into a comparable English verse that tries to preserve the spirit and lyrical qualities of the original.  His efforts have been well respected.  Our little section of Figaro’s aria may not be the most illustrative example, but in McClatchy’s translation it looks like this:


Figaro:  Bravo my Lord!
Now I begin to understand all the fuss … and see what’s behind
your scheme.  To London, eh?  You as minister, I your lackey, and Susanna
your “private secretary.”  It won’t happen! Figaro’s on to you!

Just for giggles, I plugged the Italian into Google Translate and it returned a passable English version like so:

Figaro: Bravo, my lord!
Now I begin to understand the mystery,
And to see schitto
All of your project.
In London, and you?
You minister, the courier,
And Sussanna–
Ambasciantrice secret.
It will not be, says the Figaro.

There is no one definitive translation of the text, especially when the libretto is set in poetic verse.  For an even greater degree of separation, I could go back to the original play by Pierre Beaumarchais.  It is titled Le Folle Journee, ou Le Mariage de Figaro, and is in French.  Lorenzo Da Ponte distilled a libretto in Italian for Mozart’s operatic version, and then I have to translate it into English to understand it!  Makes my head spin!

Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, “Bravo, Signor padrone”

The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro

By far, the most popular of Mozart’s operas are the three opera buffa that he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte.  The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutti are beloved works that are regularly performed to this day.  Opera buffa rose in popularity to overtake opera seria in the middle and late 18th century.  It is a genre of “comic” opera, but the term encompasses everything of the time that is not opera seria.  Opera buffa was popular entertainment for the rising middle class, who began to have disposable income to pursue pastimes they enjoyed.  Where opera seria was a genre supported by the noble and aristocratic audience, opera buffa often featured stories wherein the aristocrats were not portrayed in their best light.  Many stock character types from Italian Commedia dell’arte were reused in opera buffa, and instead of the serious stories borrowed from Greek history, opera buffa used real life persons in real life (often bawdy) situations.  The Marriage of Figaro is a masterpiece of the opera buffa style, featuring two servants who outsmart their aristocratic employers.  

Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro overture

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Lorenzo Da Ponte was the skilled librettist who wrote the words Mozart set to The Marriage of Figaro.  Da Ponte is a colorful character in his own right.  He was born Emanuele Conegliano, into a Jewish family.  His father later had him baptized into the Catholic faith, as a way to ensure he got an education.  He became a priest, but by no means a model one. In fact, he was thrown out of the priesthood because of adultery.  He was a very talented poet and author of opera libretti, but a horrible businessman.  He gambled and womanized his way, eventually escaping his Italian debts by moving to New Jersey.  In America, he ran failed businesses as a grocer, bookstore owner, and distiller, among other things.  If Lorenzo Da Ponte approached you with a business venture, you should run the other way.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Da Ponte adapted The Marriage of Figaro libretto from a play by a Frenchman Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.  Beaumarchais actually wrote a trilogy of plays featuring the character Figaro.  The first play Le Barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville), was made into an opera by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782, and most famously by Gioachino Rossini in 1816. The last play, La Mere coupable (The Guilty Mother), was made into an opera by Darius Milhaud in 1966, a work I would love to hear if anyone knows of a recording in print.  La Mere coupable also is a subplot “opera within an opera” in John Corigliano’s 1991 opera, The Ghosts of Versailles (a marvelous work). The Marriage of Figaro is the middle play of the trilogy, and was itself banned by censors after Louis XIV saw a reading.  Lorenzo Da Ponte had to make many cuts of controversial scenes to get his libretto to receive approval by the censors.  The objectionable characterizations of the aristocratic class that Da Ponte cut out of the play were quickly put back in by the genius music of Wolfgang Mozart. Napoleon had described The Marriage of Figaro as “the revolution already in action”, a full three years before the French Revolution began in 1789.

For all of its political overtones of street-smart servants outsmarting bumbling aristocrats, The Marriage of Figaro is truly a funny comedy.  The music is genius in the way it portrays the characters, in recitative, aria, and ensembles.  The most famous ensemble has to be the finale of Act II, where two singers start in duet, grow to a trio, then a quartet as more characters enter the scene.  Five, six and seven characters all enter the production in a wonderful scene that encompasses over twenty minutes of continuous music.  Below you can see a video clip that gives you the first six minutes of the finale, to whet your appetite for more.

Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, Act II finale , Part 1

Wolfgang Mozart

Wolfgang Mozart

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro has been an operatic favorite since its premiere.  The great composer Johannes Brahms said of the work, “In my opinion, each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.”  It is truly a masterpiece, but equally astounding is the fact that it took the 30-year-old Mozart only six weeks to write the opera!  I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around the speed with which Wolfgang completed the work.  

Teatro Colón

Teatro Colón


Easily, I could go into another few thousand words about the inner workings of The Marriage of Figaro, the conventions of opera buffa, the character archetypes it contains, the arias, the ensembles and on and on.  I still think that knowing some of the technical mechanics of the work can bring out a deeper meaning.  I am also coming to the realization, however,  that knowing how an internal combustion engine works does not show us the reasons why people find sports cars sexy.  (I am from the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan.  Believe me, I know about the love people have for cars.)  There is a book by a sociologist, Claudio E. Benzecry, entitled The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession.  In this book, Benzecry follows a group of opera lovers who frequent the famous  Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires.  There are stories from this largely blue-collar group of fanatics whereby some have traveled hundreds of miles, or camped out all night to get tickets to a performance.  These people are familiar with opera, but the overwhelming message in their stories is their passion for the performance.  They tell how some of their favorite arias move them to tears, they argue about their favorite singers and performances, and overall have a deep and long-lasting love of the art form.  Something sparked this passion in them, long before they learned about the mechanics and conventions of opera.  I can write about all of the theory and technical detail, but what I want to do more than anything is share my passion for Good Music, and spark something similar in someone who reads this blog.

I will try my best.  🙂

The Marriage of Figaro, Synopsis

The Marriage of Figaro, Libretto with English translation

The Marriage of Figaro, complete opera with English subtitles.