The ghosts of the court of Louis XVI arrive at the theatre of Versailles. Bored and listless, even the King is uninterested when Beaumarchais arrives and declares his love for the Queen. As Marie Antoinette is too haunted by her execution to reciprocate his love, Beaumarchais announces his intention to change her fate through the plot of his new opera 'A Figaro for Antonia.'
The cast of the opera-within-the-opera is introduced. Following the familiar escapades of the Figaro characters, Almaviva has divorced the Countess after she had a son, Leon, with Cherubino. Leon wants to marry Florestine, Almaviva's illegitimate daughter, but the Count has forbidden the union as retribution for his wife's infidelity and has promised Florestine instead to Bégearss.
Figaro enrages the Count by warning him that his trusted Bégearss is in fact a revolutionary spy. Figaro is fired, but overhears Bégearss and his servant Wilhelm hatching a plot to arrest the Count that evening at the Turkish Embassy when he sells the Queen's necklace to the English Ambassador. Figaro intercepts the plot by infiltrating the party, dressed as a dancing girl. During the outrageous performance of the Turkish singer Samira, Figaro steals the necklace from the Count before the sale can take place, and runs away.
Figaro returns only to defy Beaumarchais's intention that he return the necklace to the queen, as he wants to sell it to help the Almavivas escape. To put the story back on course, Beaumarchais enters the opera and shocks Figaro into submission by allowing him to witness the unfair trial of Marie.
The Count, swayed by his wife's wishes, rescinds his offer to Bégearss of his daughter's hand. Even though Figaro gives him the necklace, Bégearrs is enraged and sends the Spaniards to the prison where Marie Antoinette lingers.
Beaumarchais and Figaro, the only two to escape, arrive at the prison to try to rescue the Almavivas. They are shortly followed by Bérgeass whom Figaro denounces to the revolutionaries, revealing that he has kept the necklace rather than using it to feed the poor. Bégearss is carried off, the Almavivas escape to America and Beaumarchais is left with the keys to the Queen's cell. But the power of his love has made the Queen accept her fate and she refuses to let Beaumarchais alter the course of history. Marie is executed, and the pair is united in Paradise.
The Ghosts of Versailles began in 1979 over dinner with soprano Renata Scotto, and the Metropolitan Opera's music director, James Levine. We were having dinner to discuss a concert piece based on Seneca’s Medea that I had agreed to consider composing for Scotto. Instead, Levine asked me what I would do if I were to compose an opera. I replied that the only opera that would interest me would be one in which I could bring back to life the blithe spirits of Figaro, Susanna, and the Count and Countess Almaviva — who have charmed opera audiences for two hundred years. I knew that there was a third Beaumarchais play that continued their exploits after The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. What I did not know was that the Met was planning to commission a work for its hundredth anniversary. Not long after that dinner, Alice Tully, the New York patroness and member of the board of the Metropolitan Opera, asked me if I would be willing to accept the commission.
I was hesitant: the failure of my friend and mentor Samuel Barber's opera Antony and Cleopatra at the Met in 1966 had all but demoralized him, and Aaron Copland was equally discouraging, reminding me of how much time an opera would take to compose and suggesting that I could put that time to better use composing music that was more likely to succeed. Nevertheless, I accepted the commission, and asked my friend the poet and playwright William M. Hoffman to write the libretto, which he agreed to do.
Hoffman read Beaumarchais' play, the La Mere Coupable (The Guilty Mother) and concluded that the play was dramatically weak. And there were other problems. I needed a way into the Figaro characters, but I also needed a way out of them. I didn't want to be restricted to the kind of music that had made Mozart'a and Rossini's characters so appealing, I simply couldn’t imagine a twelve-tone Figaro, and if I started composing wrong-note classical music, I’d essentially be recomposing Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress — I’d tired of writing neo-classical pieces by the time I was 25! Besides which I wanted, as always, for my opera to be relevant to a contemporary audience—shouldn’t there be more to it than the domestic problems of some eighteenth-century Spanish aristocratics and their servants?
I asked Hoffman to come up with some sort of theatrical premise that would mirror the kind of music I was imagining, a world of smoke, through which one could journey to and back from the past, a world in which subtly distorted images of Mozart and Rossini could segue in and out of the abstract atonal and microtonal idiom that I had used for my film score for Altered States and for my Pied Piper Fantasy. Hoffman suggested either dreams or ghosts—the Beaumarchais characters would either dream about contemporary characters or meet them. Hoffman also told me what he was learning about the visionary Beaumarchais, an inventor, social theorist, and musician as well as a playwright, and about the brutality and absolutism of the French Revolution against which, distantly, the final Figaro play takes place.
I suddenly saw a parallel between the French revolutionary decision to completely destroy the past—to not leave a single aristocrat’s head still attached to his shoulders—as weirdly analogous to the kind of fanatical—purism, I guess you’d say—in contemporary musical thought when I was growing up. For example, I remembered Pierre Boulez’s pronouncement of how any composer who refused to see the historical necessity of twelve-tone writing was useless—and then he later decided that Schoenberg was useless too—and he was tremendously influential here in the United States, not only when I was going to Columbia but still, twenty years later. And, even though my own work was making a place for itself, there was still that poisonous belief that the only legitimate artistic path for a composer was to narrow, rather than widen, your expressive range—to talk around, or at, rather than to your audience—that toxic legacy of curdled Romanticism, in which the artist becomes less a servant of society and more a god unto himself—and the more cruel and arbitrary a god, the better. Wasn’t the resulting alienation of new music from its audience part of the reason that the Met had avoided new music for most of my lifetime?
The Mozart element in the Ghosts of Versailles, which is both the easiest thing to write about and the immediately familiar thing an audience is going to latch on to, became, in some of the press, a little bit too much of what the piece was about, so even the positive reviews praised it as a sort of high-glamour homage to Le Nozze de Figaro with the occasional ornamental tone-row, which was absolutely not what this piece was. It was a way of using certain tropes of the past to talk about how to use that past and go beyond it. But it did that with actual history and a fair amount of comedy . . . and there will always be those people who will see a piece and assume that if it’s at all entertaining or makes room in its design for comedy, that it’s not “serious” and they dismiss it. Of course, there goes Shakespeare—or Pinter, or Stoppard, or David Hare, or virtually any other important playwright in the canon—but there you are. . . .
I became aware of Wagner’s prose writings on the Jews in Germany at about the same time we were working on The Ghosts of Versailles, and again I was struck by the common thread between Wagner, Hitler, and the demagogues of both the French revolution and musical modernism. Now, obviously I’m not equating the slaughter of millions of people or the overthrow of a probably corrupt royal regime with the degradation of musical taste in my own land and time: there is no possible moral comparison among the three (although the psychological links between Wagner and Hitler I think are very much worth exploring.) Still, I kept noticing that all this thought was about purity, hierarchy, exclusion, and rigidity. Your own idealism sweeps all before it: it is not to be questioned. There is one right way, or people, or system: only that is to be respected. And whatever you decide is unacceptable, you expunge, whether they’re aristocrats, triads, or Jews. . . .
– John Corigliano