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November 03, 2009

Alternative Hsitory as Opera: Brendan Simms on John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles

Posted by Brendan Simms

John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles
Wexford Opera House, Wexford, Ireland
Wexford Festival Opera
in repertory 21st - 30th October 2009

The genre of "alternative history" continues to enthral publishers and publics. One thinks of the phenomenal success of Niall Ferguson's seminal Virtual History, or Robert Cowley's What If volumes, and a host of other works.

It has also found cinematic expression in films such as the naval thriller The Final Countdown (starring Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen; directed by Don Taylor, 1980), in which the crew of a US aircraft carrier in the 1980s are offered the opportunity to re-fight Pearl Harbour with modern jets. There are many literary examples, too. The one that intrigued me most was Stephen Fry's Making History (1996) which explores the alternative universe we would have had if Hitler had never been born.

Until last week, however, I did not know that virtual history has already found an operatic outlet: John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (libretto by William M. Hoffman) which premiered to great acclaim at the New York Met in 1991, and has been revived for the Wexford Festival.

It is set in a world peopled by the ghosts of French aristocrats. Some of them - like the French Royal family - were executed during the Revolution. Others, such as the playwright Beaumarchais, died in their beds.

Most have come to terms with their lot, but the French Queen Marie Antoinette (the best performance of the evening, by Maria Kanyova), guillotined in October 1793 has been unable to find peace. Her restless spirit haunts the opening scenes. Her admirer Beaumarchais proposes to rewrite the course of history with a new drama, partly to win Marie Antoinette's love, but perhaps partly also to atone for his own role in the intellectual origins of the Revolution. Henceforth, the action takes place at two levels: the "present", which is indicated by the brilliant ghostly white, grey and chalked faces of the performers, and the new "past", which unfolds as a play performed in "normal colours".

Musically, this relationship is expressed by a highly playful and allusive score. There is plenty of Mozart, of course, not least because his Marriage of Figaro is based on a play by Beaumarchais, but also in the "oriental" scenes which are reminiscent of his Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail. There were echoes of West Side Story in the movements which combined jazz and classical themes. I even thought I heard some Queen lurking in there. I didn't spot any Wagner, but that may be because one of the characters remarks in a knowing aside, that serious opera is supposed to be like Wagner.

The overall effect is eclectic, playful, generally melodious, accessible and highly parodic. For example, in a moment intended to mimic the dramatic return of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, the servant "Figaro" is told to prepare to meet his "maker" - the playwright Beaumarchais! In this riotous feast of musical in-jokes - skilfully pitched at a middle-brow audience - all sense of the past and present inevitably breaks down. The sense of dislocation is heightened by use of background film scenes from a 1920s drama on the French Revolution to provide a sense of the crowd in action.

The "alternative" French Revolution of Beaumarchais's play pivots on the fate of a necklace. Corigliano's choice of that particular form of jewellery can hardly be a coincidence. It was after all, the notorious "affair of the diamond necklace" in the 1780s - when a courtier attempted to curry favour with the queen with an expensive gift - which so damaged Marie Antoinette's public standing and led inexorably to her trial and execution. Beaumarchais's plot, which hinges on the sale of a necklace by the Spanish ambassador Almaviva in order to pay for the queen's escape, is thus an attempt to rewrite history at several levels.

This turns out to be far more difficult than Beaumarchais expects. His characters demonstrate a worrying tendency to emancipate themselves from authorial control. Almaviva's servant Figaro - knowing that his master's false friend Begearss plans to betray them to the authorities, runs off with the necklace. At first, however, he refuses to return it on the grounds that Marie Antoinette is everything that the revolutionaries make her out to be: selfish, frivolous and spendthrift to boot.

But even when the playwright restores his narrative, the necklace is returned and can be sold to aid the queen's flight, history refuses to change. "Now you can live", Beaumarchais tells Marie Antoinette. "No, Beaumarchais", she replies in a beautiful and memorable moment. She refuses to be saved, because observing the play she has gained an understanding of why she was hated; before, "I didn't know the world outside". She accepts her fate, and can now rest.

Perhaps this is just as well, because we cannot know history would have turned out without the French Revolution and with Maria Antonette. In the Final Countdown, the question of alternative outcomes is neatly sidestepped. A storm intervenes to bring the protagonists back to the present before the captain of the aircraft carrier can launch a devastating strike on the Japanese fleet nearing Pearl Harbour. In Making History, on the other hand, the hero succeeds in preventing Hitler's birth but is stunned to find that an even more malevolent, and much more competent German dictator arises in his place, wins the Second World and creates an enduring racist dystopia.

Alternative histories thus fulfil a useful intellectual function. They make us aware of the determinist trap of assuming that what actually happened was the only - or the best or the worst - possible outcome. The best of these exercises - including The Ghosts of Versailles - also demonstrate the power of artistic recreation to provide insight into the fractured relationship between the present and a past that refuses to go away until laid to rest by art.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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