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PERFORMING ARTS | COMMENTARY

Peter Sellars Wins Them Back

The director had been anathema at Glyndebourne. His production of Handel's 'Theodora' may have changed all that.

June 02, 1996|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

LEWES, ENGLAND — "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story," Handel famously quipped about his favorite but unpopular oratorio, "Theodora." "And the ladies will not come, because it is a virtuous one."

The folks at Glyndebourne might well have feared that their usual audience--swells in formal dress who picnic elegantly on the courtly lawns of this exclusive operatic enclave--would also stay away. Not because of "Theodora"--all of Handel's works, these days, are more popular and appreciated than ever, even an oratorio with a hopelessly stilted libretto. No, the red flag was raised because Peter Sellars happened to be staging the new production, which has just opened Glyndebourne's summer season.

Sellars is known here. Nine years ago, he made his Glyndebourne debut directing the premiere of a new British opera, Nigel Osborne's "The Electrification of the Soviet Union," and Sellars' "updating" of Craig Raine's libretto-- before it had ever been given in its intended form--was seen as the height of American gall.

Then in 1990, Sellars returned to this pastoral setting, an English manor nestled in the East Sussex countryside 54 miles south of London, where the cows (mad, perhaps, but awfully pretty) are separated from the picnickers by moats called ha-has. He brought along a version of "The Magic Flute" set in the glitzy streets of Los Angeles, replete with drug dealers and creepy New Age gurus.

It was an often revelatory production, honestly demonstrating the angst that lies beneath a seemingly innocent singspiel. But it was seen by upper-crust British society and critics as quite literally tacking Sunset Strip billboards on to a Constable landscape.

For his efforts to modernize Mozart, Sellars received the first boos ever heard at Glyndebourne. Peter Hall, Glyndebourne's head of production, quit over the company allowing Sellars to remove the opera's dialogue. And an oft-quoted review in the Financial Times called the production "the flattest, laziest, emptiest piece of work in festival history."

The fear that Sellars would do it again, this time to Handel, Britain's greatest and most revered music dramatist, could be read in the London newspapers' advance pieces. Sellars is still called an enfant terrible (if, at 40, an aging one) by the London press, and no one seems ready to even think of forgiving him for the "Merchant of Venice" he brought to London from Chicago last season, again set in multicultural Los Angeles.

With "Theodora," Sellars has, indeed, shocked once more, and in the only way left to him. He has mounted a triumph. For all the bad poetry of the libretto, "Theodora" contains some of Handel's greatest music. It is a profound work about a subject that means a great deal to us today': the necessity to maintain genuine faith and humanity, no matter how difficult, in a world of bad governments and immoral institutions. It is a theme that runs through all of Sellars' work, and he has gotten to its deep, disturbing and almost unbearably moving heart so directly and powerfully that it seems impossible that anyone could miss the point. Certainly the visibly affected audience at Glyndebourne didn't.

Perhaps a curmudgeon will come along and complain about this or that; it is a Peter Sellars production after all. But even the London Times' influential opera critic, Rodney Milnes, who had grumpily concurred with the critical chorus of boos for Sellars' "Flute," proclaimed himself happy, now, to be provoked, and he concluded that "Theodora" was "one of Glyndebourne's great evenings, without a doubt."

This, moreover, is an American triumph. Not only is the production made up of Sellars regulars--set designer George Tsypin, costume designer Dunya Ramicova and lighting designer James Ingalls--but the conductor, William Christie, and most of the dream cast, notably soprano Dawn Upshaw, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, countertenor David Daniels and tenor Richard Croft--are American.

And more importantly, this is a production about modern American life as we live it. Sellars does not change old masterpieces as much as demonstrate their pertinence, making clear that our problems are part of the human condition that great art has long addressed. Ironically, Baroque opera, once thought a singularly static art form, actually allows for a great deal of theatrical freedom and relevance through its emphasis on emotions rather than story.

Although the character Theodora is of dubious veracity, the oratorio concerns the historical persecution of the early Christians by the Romans. The inviolably pure Christian heroine leads a rebellion against the worship of Roman gods in celebration of the emperor's birthday, facing a penalty of death.

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