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TV REVIEW : Peter Sellars Has His Modern Way With Mozart : Opera:Conventional ideas of Baroque drama are blithely tossed aside as Figaro gets married in the Trump Tower.

December 13, 1990|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Turn on the TV. Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

But wait. Sit back. Try to relax. Enjoy the ride.

Reflect, if you can. Listen. Take nothing for granted.

Even if--make that when --you find the experience mystifying or irritating, you'll still find it provocative and stimulating. That can't be said very often these days about opera in America.

The subject, of course, is Peter Sellars. His subject, about to be explored in depth on public television, is Mozart--specifically the genius who collaborated with Lorenzo da Ponte on three profoundly unsettling operatic masterpieces.

Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere--most recently, perhaps, in the New York Times--Sellars is not an artsy joker. He is no clumsy comic-book clown. He certainly is no self-indulgent fool.

Self-indulgent, he may be. A fool he is not.

He happens to know--and care--a lot about music and drama. A man of passionate convictions, he refuses to accept hand-me-down stereotypes or predigested interpretations. He abhors cliches and conventions. He insists that opera make sense on contemporary terms for inquisitive modern audiences. He works with a distinctly American sensibility, and imposes it where necessary upon his surprisingly flexible, amazingly receptive sources.

He is an obsessive pioneer in a field dominated by tired hacks. Like many a pioneer before him, he sometimes overstates his case. He often goes a step or three too far. Even his miscalculations, however, are revealing.

Sellars' dubious decisions are relentlessly exposed, along with his staggering inspirations, in a three-part project that began some years ago at the Pepsico Summerfare in Purchase, N.Y. It was here that he staged "Le Nozze di Figaro" as a very dark comedy of errors and eros plus social intrigue that happens to take place in the Trump Tower of glitzy Manhattan.

It was at Pepsico that Don Giovanni became a sleazy dope pusher in Spanish Harlem. It was here, too, that Sellars completed the transformation of "Cosi fan Tutte" into a poignant study of amorous hysteria in an urban hangout called Despina's Diner.

Predictably, the director-auteur has found his share of adversaries as well as champions. He failed to sustain the financial backing he needed at Pepsico. It must be significant--and ironic--that the three Da Ponte operas were finally taped for television in Mozart's native Austria, not in Sellars' native America.

Be that as it may, we are lucky to have these historic productions authentically preserved. Celebrating the Mozart bicentennial, PBS will broadcast a documentary about the making of the trilogy tonight (at 10 on Channel 28), followed by the complete "Figaro" on Friday (9 p.m.). The series is scheduled to continue with "Don Giovanni" on Jan. 4 and "Cosi" on Feb. 15.

The documentary, entitled "Destination Mozart," is a useful primer. It describes Sellars' intentions neatly, reveals his collaborators as articulate exponents of his cause. If only the program revealed a bit more of how he works, as opposed to how he thinks.

One fact is clear: The man likes close-ups. His own face--post-mod crewcut crowning pixie eyes and a sly smile--dominates the screen even before the "Great Performances" credits can roll. Gesticulating wildly and looking for all the world like a talking pineapple, Sellars offers some overwrought mock hype.

"Thank God!" he blares. "The feudal system remains firmly in place in the United States of the '90s. Stay tuned for an evening of out-of-control sexual exploitation and aggression, political theory and big entertainment."

Wow. Whew. Start the overture.

The telecast bears a presumably crucial title. This isn't "Le Nozze di Figaro" or, if you will, "The Marriage of Figaro." It is "Peter Sellars Directs the Marriage of Figaro."

The director will have none of it.

"It's ridiculous," he disclaims, "that they call this series 'Peter Sellars Directs. . . . ' What you're seeing is ensemble opera."

He's right, to a degree. Over the years, Sellars has attracted and developed a group of amazingly devoted, remarkably talented singing actors who really understand the psyches they must enliven, and who obviously understand each other. This may not be a collection of million-dollar larynxes, but it emphatically is a collection of intelligent, resourceful artists who know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and for whom.

They aren't very funny. Sellars doesn't often play Mozart for laughs. He concerns himself with relationships, with mortal moral conflicts, with pain that inevitably underlines a smile. In "Figaro," he observes and choreographs a desperate battle of the sexes. Often, Mozart and Da Ponte accommodate, even reinforce, his vision.

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