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Peter Sellars Wins Them Back

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

“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.

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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.

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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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Sellars does not exactly pinpoint a time or place. Some British observers have tried to suggest that it’s Waco, since the brutish governor of Antioch, Valens (sung by the Norwegian bass, Frode Olsen, the only non-American principal), seems a slick U.S. president or FBI chief, and the Romans are brightly dressed Americans. The simplicity of the production prevents Sellars from some of the excesses that have gotten in his way in the past.

The Christians, in black and white, are reminiscent of various solemn religious sects, from Shaker to Sikh, not any particular one. The soldiers, whether on a rampage or standing menacingly motionless with their automatic weapons, are killing machines in orange jumpsuits.

But by not being entirely specific, Sellars makes the imagery all the more potent and scary. The conversion of the soldier, Didymus (Daniels), to Christianity, and his attempt to save his beloved Theodora (Upshaw), along with the doubts about the oppressive regime that his sympathetic superior, Septimus (Croft), exhibits, are wonderfully uplifting fantasies about the hopeful inner life of soldiers. And no scene in modern opera production could be more devastating than the execution of Theodora and Didymus--slowly, coldly by lethal injection. While death in opera is too often absurd, Sellars knows that most modern-day experiences of death are in impersonal medical surroundings with machinery as fearful as instruments of torture.

All of this is played out in an intentionally austere, easily packed-up environment--the production (with a less stellar cast, but still overseen by Sellars) will tour Britain next fall. Tsypin’s set, a white box with five stunning, massive broken flasks that move into various formations, suggests both antiquity and modern design, with a hint of Duchamp thrown in.

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The simplicity of the production prevents Sellars from some of the excesses that have gotten in his way in the past. Every singer’s movement appears not just generated by the music but inseparable from it. For the choruses of the Christians, Sellars has devised a series of hand motions (something he has been doing with mixed success for years) that prove to be ineffably expressive, drawing the listener into their recondite rites. Seldom has organized religion been so sympathetically or sophisticatedly portrayed on the cynical modern stage.

The immediate comparison here would seem to be with Mark Morris’ staging of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” recently given in Los Angeles, and offered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music almost simultaneously with the opening of “Theodora” at Glyndebourne. Both are modern stage interpretations of works only 12 years apart (although Gluck’s was meant to be a modern refinement of the ornamental Baroque opera). Sellars and Morris, moreover, are contemporaries, longtime friends and sometimes collaborators.

What these productions have in common is the application of modern media to provide new insight into classical repertoire. Morris reinterprets a great Classical-period reformist opera through modern dance; Sellars reinterprets a great Baroque-period oratorio through modern operatic staging.

But Sellars was luckier in his collaborators and conditions. Morris’ choreography serves, in part, as compensation for a chorus not likely to move well. Sellars has the extraordinary Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, young soloists apparently able to do anything. Sellars also has, in Christie, an inspired conductor who not only gets first-rate playing from the British period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but whose expertise with the Baroque period leads him to the kind of flights of theatrical imagination other early music conductors don’t dare.

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Christie also appears to be an ideal inspiration for a cast able to produce an unbroken string of blissfully sung arias--Hunt, rivetingly intense and ready for superstar status; Daniels, spectacularly flexible; Upshaw, luminous as ever. (Fortunately, Warner has plans to record “Theodora” for CD and video.) Christie surely deserves credit, as well, for inspiring the director’s unwavering musical focus.

Sellars ends the production with the Romans singing the final, overwhelming Christian chorus (a chorus Handel thought greater than the “Hallelujah”). This might be purely because there was no time for costume change, but the stirring implication is that something momentous has changed in these people’s lives.

The ending also serves as an inspiring symbol of Glyndebourne’s bravery in championing an unpopular artist, and ultimately winning over the high-toned public and critics. It serves, moreover, to remind Americans how unlike that are U.S. arts institutions. But if Americans can teach the Brits something about their Handel, maybe we should learn a thing or two from them about our artists.


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