NEW YORK - For the third time since the end of 2011, the name Chautauqua has been a major subject for the principal newspapers and magazines of our nation's largest city.
In January, two plays which began life as part of the Chautauqua Theater Company's New Play Workshops were on the city's boards. Last week, Jay Lesenger, the artistic director of the Chautauqua Opera Company, was responsible for a production of one of the most famous and envied operas to be created in the past century: ''The Ghosts of Versailles,'' by John Corigliano, with libretto by William M. Hoffman.
I had planned to write about the opera in last week's column, but then I both saw the Stratford production of ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' and completed my interview with one of its stars before I was able to attend ''Ghosts of Versailles,'' so I simply reversed the order of the two columns.
The ghost of Marie Antoinette must re-live the shame of her trial before the French Revolution in the opera “The Ghosts of Versailles,” directed in New York by Chautauqua Opera Artistic Director Jay Lesenger.
I know a number of fans of Chautauqua Opera who made the journey to the Manhattan School of Music, where ''Ghosts'' was being performed. I also know a number of opera buffs who haven't had close ties to Chautauqua, but who revised their busy schedules to get to the city and catch a performance of an opera which has only been heard a handful of times since it's earth-shattering first performance in 1991. The combination of those forces was just irresistible.
Let me tell you about the history of the opera, then something about the stellar performance of the opera last week, and something about the production behind it:
'GHOSTS' ON STAGE
The Jamestown Community Orchestra will perform their annual spring concert on Sunday, May 20, at 4 p.m. at First Covenant Church, on Spring Street in downtown Jamestown.
The orchestra is all-volunteer, and there is no admission charge to their concerts, although a free will offering is taken, to be used to rent or purchase music for them to perform, and to pay other such expenses.
No tickets or pre-reservations are necessary.
Readers who enjoy attending events in Erie should make note that the box office for those events, usually located in the Tullio Arena, has temporarily been moved to the Warner Theater, just inside the French Street entrance of the theater.
Box office hours through Memorial Day will be Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. After Memorial Day, hours will be Monday through Friday, only, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you prefer to purchase tickets by phone or by computer, you may phone 814-452-4857, or go to www.erieevents.com.
Speaking of events in Erie, although ones which do not use the Tullio box office, the Station Dinner Theater will perform ''The Chicago Speakeasy,'' a musical romp through the Roaring Twenties, through May 27.
The Chicago musical will be followed by the roaring farce ''Not Now Darling,'' which will open June 5 and play through June 24.
In both productions, the audience is seated family style at large tables, where the members of the cast serve the dinner, in and around their performances. Reservations are not always necessary, but are strongly encouraged.
Box office hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone 814-864-2022, or visit them online at www.canterburyfeast.com.
The company's performances take place at 4940 Peach St. in Erie.
Tuesday through Saturday of next week, the famed Bolshoi Ballet, from Moscow, will perform at Toronto's Sony Center.
The legendary Russian company will be performing the original Petipa choreography to the ballet ''Swan Lake,'' with music by Piotyr Tchaikovsky.
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on weeknights, at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, plus a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday. For tickets, go to the web site at www.ticketmaster.ca. Note the ending of ''ca'' for Canada, and not ''com,'' as in the U.S.
The Bradford campus of the University of Pittsburgh will conduct more than two dozen camps this summer, including learning opportunities in solving mysteries, writing narratives, taking photographs, producing television programs, and other areas.
For additional information about the programs, phone 814-362-5078 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Through May 27, the Ujima Theatre Company in Buffalo will perform ''The Scavenger's Daughter,'' which will be directed by its author, Gary Earl Ross.
The play recounts the story of a woman struggling with her husband's Alzheimer's disease, while coping with his children by his first marriage.
Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25 for the general public, $20 for senior citizens, and $15 for students. Performances take place at TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave., in Buffalo.
Phone 883-0380 or go to their website at www.ujimatheatre.org.
The Octagon Gallery at Patterson Library in Westfield is currently showing ''All Nature is Resurrection,'' a show of photography by Bill Karrow, Elora Esce, Mara Rubin and Megan Borgstrom. The show will continue through June 8.
The gallery is located in the basement of the library, and it is open whenever the library is open. Admission is free of charge, although the opportunity to make a freewill offering for the costs of doing the shows, is provided.
The library is located at 40 S. Portage St. in Westfield.
In 2010, the play ''Insidious,'' by Ibn Shabazz, was written and developed in Buffalo and was performed at the Road Less Travelled Productions.
The play has recently been picked up by our nation's largest African American theater company, the Black Rep in St. Louis, and it will open for a full production there on May 23.
The production will continue in St. Louis through June 24, under the direction of Ron Himes, the founder of Black Rep. The company has announced that productions of the play in other major venues around the U.S. will announced in the near future.
Chautauqua County native Natalie Merchant will perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic, on Feb. 16, 2013, according to the orchestra's recent news release.
Ms. Merchant, who sang with rock group 10,000 Maniacs before beginning a successful solo career, will perform as part of the orchestra's five-concert BPO Rocks series of concerts at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo.
The other featured artists in the 2012-13 season by the orchestra will be Indigo Girls on Sept. 28, Three Dog Night on Oct. 12, Michael Cavanaugh's Elton John Tribute on Oct. 27, and the orchestra's tribute to the music of Led Zeppelin on May 11. All concerts will be at 8 p.m.
Tickets to the entire series are now on sale. Individual tickets begin at $29, and have not been announced yet as being for sale.
For details, go to the orchestra's website at www.bpo.org or phone 885-5000.
In 1980, the Metropolitan Opera Company decided that the grandaddy of American companies ought to celebrate its 100th anniversary by commissioning a new opera, which would live in the repertoire, and remind everyone of the company's grand history wherever it was performed.
They commissioned the opera from John Corigliano, a contemporary American composer, who is probably best known by the general public for his creation of the score to the 1999 Hollywood film ''The Red Violin.'' That film crossed the line between popular entertainment and classical art, and had concert violinist Joshua Bell's brilliant performances emerging from the stereos and the television sets of Middle America as often as from the speakers of Classical America.
The Met gave the composer four years to create their new masterpiece, but he eventually required 11 years. The opera was finally placed on the Met's giant stage in 1991, where it was the first new opera to be debuted since 1967.
The opening production featured Teresa Stratas, Marilyn Horne, Renee Fleming, Gino Quilico and other of the top strata of singing artists. Sadly, the grandeur of the company's centenary inspired the composer to a cast of hundreds, and instrumentalists in the hundreds as well. The result grabbed the attention of the news media, and the opera world as well, but sadly, there weren't many companies who could begin to pay so many artists to do a single production, even if they had room in their performing spaces to get all those artists onto the stage.
Even the Met needed to put their new work of art into mothballs. They made one attempt to resurrect it as a vehicle for Broadway and television star Kristin Chenoweth, singing the role of the comic Turkish singer Samira, the role originally performed by Marilyn Horne.
But sadly, costs mounted up and the project had to be abandoned.
Since then, the opera has been performed only a very few times. In 2008, with Corigliano's blessing, St. Louis Opera commissioned composer John David Earnest to create a reduction of the opera, significantly reducing the number of both singers and instrumentalists. St. Louis performed the new version with some success, and Lesenger successfully produced the new version at Northwestern University, where he was on the faculty.
The St. Louis and Northwestern productions caught the attention of the Manhattan School of Music, who saw the opportunity to produce the rarely performed opera as an opportunity to offer something very special to their talented students, and to make a significant contribution to the worlds of both opera and music in general.
Even with numbers significantly reduced, it was necessary to devise some electronic wizardry to perform ''Ghosts of Versailles'' in the Manhattan School's beautiful Borden Auditorium. The orchestra pit had room for nearly 50 musicians, but that wasn't enough to perform even the reduced version of Corigliano's creation.
Eventually, the entire percussion section of the orchestra, plus the harp and the electronic keyboards, ended up being played on a completely different floor of the building from the auditorium. Instrumentalists in those sections saw conductor Steven Osgood on a large television screen, so that their performance was exactly synchronous with the performing of the musicians in the orchestra pit, and the music they created was captured digitally and broadcast into the auditorium, with sound engineers blending the sound perfectly with the in-house orchestra.
I have to say, I knew about the separation, and tried to detect a difference, and found the sound to be perfectly blended.
In response, even members of my profession who are not known for their use of even mild positives were driven to superlatives by this production. It was a thrill to recognize myself sitting directly behind the librettist, and across the aisle from the composer of the opera - both of whom loudly proclaimed themselves greatly impressed by what had been done with their work.
I also recognized a significant number of major singers and musicians from the company of the Metropolitan Opera, who had made their way uptown to experience the production for themselves. Their obvious delight was undeniable.
The composer and the librettist clearly chose to celebrate a century of opera performances at the Met by quoting a great many plot points and musical phrases from those performances.
The opera begins with a costumed singer, representing the culture and tradition of opera, entering the theater in the Palace of Versailles. There, she encounters the ghosts of the executed nobles who were beheaded by the French Revolution. Each ghost bears a red stripe around his or her neck, where the guillotine's blade put an end to their lives.
Central among the ghosts is the late queen herself, Marie Antoinette, who is completely depressed and in despair. She cannot endure, even centuries later, the humiliation of her trial and public execution.
Also among the ghosts is the spirit of the playwright Beaumarchais. In his day, Beaumarchais was a revolutionary, having played a major role in getting the French government to finance the American Revolution against Great Britain. His trio of plays about a Spanish barber named Figaro is often listed as among the causes of the French Revolution, because the plays proved to people who had been raised to believe that nobles and royalty were made superior by God to their common neighbors, that nobles could be less intelligent and less good than an average man.
The late playwright is completely enchanted by the fragile and elegant queen. He offers to produce an opera to cheer her. He calls his new opera ''A Figaro for Antonia.'' Antonia was the queen's name as a child, which was made to sound more French - as Antoinette - when she married the King of France at the age of 14.
Beaumarchais believes that history is not made by what has happened, but by what people believe has happened. For example, the queen never said, ''Let them eat cake,'' but people believed that she said it, and hated her for it, inspiring them to press for her execution.
He believes that if he uses his famous characters of Figaro, Susanna, Count Almaviva and the others, all of whom appear in operas by Mozart, by Rossini and by others, to produce a plot to bribe the queen's escape from the revolutionary jailers, and which spirits her to live her long, normal life in America, that he can erase the reality of her humiliation and pain. Corigliano often connects the famous characters with passages of music from the operas which made them famous, meaning nothing to those who aren't familiar with ''The Barber of Seville'' and the rest, but nudging the feelings and ideas of the original operas, for those who do recognize them.
Beaumarchais imagines that Count Almaviva has been appointed ambassador from Spain to France, at the outset of the revolution. He writes that the count will sell a priceless diamond necklace of the queen's and use the money to buy her escape.
Sadly, the count's barber, Figaro, has become a revolutionary. He thinks the queen's necklace should be sold and the money used to relieve poverty and suffering. In a scene of Keystone Kops-like buffo, Figaro nabs the necklace at a grand celebration in the Turkish Embassy, and he flees, thus ending the first act. The playwright finds his characters taking on a life of their own and refusing to do what he writes for them to do.
Eventually, Beaumarchais arranges for Figaro to witness the queen's trial. In a long and very moving scene, taken word for word from her actual trial, the characters learns how unfairly and unjustly the trial took place, and he relents and returns the necklace. By this time, she has decided that paper triumphs do not outweigh the realities of life.
Young soprano Cree Carrico was both visually and vocally lovely as the doomed queen. She moved with great elegance and maintained great warmth in her voice, even when the character is stressed or hysterical. Her voice is young and will certainly become richer, but she is well on her way to a great career.
Gideon Dabi offered a rich baritone as Beaumarchais, making him seem well-matched to his elegant beloved.
Nickoli Strommer was a fine comic as Figaro, and played out all the slapstick nonsense with brio, even though its degree of silliness probably weakened the production.
Lesenger's direction provided a clean, easy to understand flow of the activities of the opera. His stage picture was always powerful. He never got his large cast entangled with one another. Since the ghosts of the title are capable of moving back and forth through time and distance, it would have been very easy to have confused or distracted the audience, but instead, it all made wonderful sense.
It certainly demonstrated what he could be doing at Chautauqua with a better-equipped house in which to perform and a bit more cash to spend on production values. What he's doing with what he has is very good as it is.
The production ran throughout the last week of April. I wish you could have seen it and heard it. It was well worth the trip to the big city.