JOHN CORIGLIANO may have been working on his new opera, "The Ghosts of Versailles," since 1979, but it has been worth the wait: Its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera last week was a highlight of the company's quarter-century in the Lincoln Center location, and surely the finest opera presented since Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" in 1910.The work was commissioned for the company's 100th anniversary season in 1983-84. What is on view indeed celebrates the Met, its facilities, its artistic potential. It also celebrates the genre of opera gloriously, tunefully, wittily, touchingly, and finally movingly. With a few minor revisions, "Ghosts" should easily find a home in the repertoire of all major international opera companies. (The Lyric Opera of Chicago, now a part owner of the Met production, will present the work during its 1995-96 season.) And this from a composer who states categorically that he comes from outside the operatic tradition. Mr. Corigliano and his librettist William M. Hoffman have dubbed the work a grand opera buffa - combining the elements of grand opera with the sort of vivacious comic operas Rossini so perfected. The seed of the story comes from the third of Beaumarchais's "Figaro" plays, "La Mere coupable," ("The Guilty Mother"), which follows the characters in "The Barber of Seville," and "The Marriage of Figaro" 20 years later, during the French Reign of Terror. The opera is a love story for the ghosts of Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette, predominantly, as well as for Beaumarchais's Count and Countess Almaviva, and their two illegitimate children Leon and Florestine. It opens in Versailles, with the ghosts of Louis XVI's court gathering to hear Beaumarchais's new opera, "A Figaro for Antonia." Beaumarchais is trying, with this play, to rewrite history so that his beloved Marie Antoinette (who has spent the time since her execution in a deep depression) can escape the guillotine and so that they can run off to live in exile in America. She gives Beaumarchais her necklace, and he, deus-ex-machina style, passes it on to his character, Count Almaviva, now Spanish Ambassador to the Courts of France. The count will sell the necklace to raise funds to get Antoinette out of France. The buffa generally reaches a riotous climax in the last scene of the first act, set in the Turkish Embassy. The second and final act appears to continue in the same mode until Figaro decides the Queen is not worth saving. Beaumarchais must actually become a cast member of his own play to convince Figaro otherwise. Antoinette also joins in, and together they reenact her trial, after which Figaro begs her forgiveness. In the end, Antoinette tells Beaumarchais to let history have its original ending, because in him she has finally and unexpectedly found love. It is a dense and complicated plot, but no more so than many other popular operas. Mr. Hoffman's libretto is clever, and surprisingly wieldy considering what he is trying to accomplish - very rich in characterization, divided neatly into scenes, arias, and ensembles. On this foundation, Corigliano has created a beautiful, compassionate work. Corigliano does not strive to stretch the boundaries of operatic form the way he has done in his various concertos. Rather, he has found a rhapsodic-melodic style that amplifies the operatic aspects and gives the lyrical music that pervades the second act a hauntingly vibrant and communicative edge. Corigliano's reputation as the finest orchestrator of the day is given new luster here, be it Figaro's opening aria where he imagines that he is floating to the stars, or later in a ravishing duet between Rosina and Cherubino that becomes a gorgeous "Quartet" when the two ghosts join in. The second act is a superb achievement, and is chock-full of magnificent things. The pinnacle, for this reviewer, was the hushed, profoundly moving "Quintet & Miserere." Colin Graham's direction is fundamentally without flaw; John Conklin's designs create a kaleidoscope of vivid and stunning images. The cast is close to ideal, and while it is not possible to cite even the majority of the 39 principals, some must be mentioned. Teresa Stratas gives her finest performance in years as Marie Antoinette, and reveals a new-found lustrousness of voice that suits the music perfectly. Haken Hagegard's Beaumarchais is a wonderful creation histrionically and vocally; Renee Fleming's Rosina is a thing of vocal and visual beauty; Graham Clark handles the villainies of Begearss handsomely; Tracy Dahl manages the ultra-high-lying role of Florestine effortlessly; Marilyn Horne turns in a riotous, virtuoso account of Samira's gloriously silly aria in the Turkish Embassy. Finally, the Met orchestra, under the direction of James Levine, played this demanding score with a skill that belied its unfamiliarity. The maestro took to the score as he takes to Verdi and Wagner, capitalizing on its innate warmth and expansive beauty, without ever shirking the buffa elements so crucial to the first act.
"The Ghosts of Versailles" is sold out through its Jan. 10 run. The opera can be heard on the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Jan. 4, 1992, at 1 p.m., EST (check local listings). The Jan. 10 performance will be videotaped by PBS for a broadcast in 1992-93.