Wired to Music

BY LLOYD SCHWARTZ

PETER SELLARS, THE new director of the American National Theater, begins his first complete season at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater this fall with the grenades of controversy still exploding around his ears. The New York Times attacked The Count of Monte Cristo, his Washington debut last spring, just as it has attacked most of his other major productions. But whatever hostile or bewildered reactions Sellars has accumulated in seventeen years of theatrical experience (he’s now twenty-seven)— some clearly provoked by youthful excess and the occasional misfiring—must be seen in the perspective of critical awe and jubilation, awards (including a MacArthur “genius grant”), and SRO signs that have also greeted his extraordinarily original work.

Perhaps one can sympathize with the more conservative members of a Sellars opera audience confronted for the first time with his startling updatings: his modern-dress Mozart and Haydn, with Don Giovanni pulling a switchblade and then banqueting on Big Macs (The New Hampshire Symphony, 1980, designed by Edward Gorey), Armida’s enchanted palace overrun with helicopters, M-16s, and Agent Orange (Monadnock Music Festival, 1981), or Cosí fan tutte’s courtly heroes disguising themselves as the Blues Brothers (Castle Hill, 1984); or his hip Handel, with Saul as a proto-Nixon complete with motorcade and tape recorder (Cantata Singers, 1981), Orlando as a spacy Cape Canaveral cadet heading for Mars (American Repertory Theater, 1981-1982—possibly the longest run of a Handel opera in history), or Cleopatra dropping in on Julius Caesar from a construction crane near the swimming pool of a bombed-out luxury hotel in the Middle East (PepsiCo Summerfare, SUNY Purchase, 1985).

In Sellars’s version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (Chicago Lyric Opera, 1983) Nanki-Poo even charges his bribe to Pooh-Bah on an American Express credit card. Such consistently cheeky flamboyance may have distracted audiences from Sellars’s more important achievements, many of which seem, to use his word, “wired” to his deep understanding of and dependence on music.

Sellars must be the most musical stage director this country has ever produced. Even his “straight” plays have employed both recordings and live musicians: Sidney Bechet’s “Blues in the Air” in Brecht’s The Visions of Simone Machard (La Jolla Playhouse, 1983), Beethoven, Debussy, and Elmore James in Pericles (Boston Shakespeare Company, 1983). Almost the entire two-hour first act of The Count of Monte Cristo was uncannily timed to passages (some only a few bars long, some as long as several continuous movements) from Beethoven’s Opus 59 String Quartet, the Serioso, performed by four musicians at a far corner of the Eisenhower Theater’s vast stage.

“No, no! You shall not die!” — Edmund Dantes’s cry to the old Abbé in the dungeon scene of Monte Cristo shattered their conspiratorial whispers as dramatically as Beethoven’s allegro finale had, at that exact moment, broken the hushed larghetto introduction. The triple pianissimo just before the final coda, shivering under Dantes’s triumphant “Saved! The world is mine!”, gave the Act One curtain an ominously ironic edge. Such musical interpolations not only heighten the tension or set the tone (often ironic) of a given moment but also help determine the pace and dynamics of an entire sequence and connect that sequence to the rhythmic scheme of the whole production.

Sellars’s choice of music shows an impressive grasp of tone and structure. His use, for example, of the rumbling, growling opening theme of the Serioso to introduce each terrible new plot twist acknowledged the inescapable element of melodrama in Beethoven. But Sellars also wanted to show the profundity within the melodramatic plot. “In melodrama is the birth of modernism,” he wrote in his program note. “In the headlong over-the-top madness of it, the perpetual placement of people and situations in purgatorial extremis, we have the impulse toward pure expressionism.” This intense, condensed, “serious” music, in its attitudes about confinement and liberation, linked The Count of Monte Cristo with another “serious” Beethoven opus—Fidelio.

How deeply and variously Sellars responds to music is, of course, most evident in his musical productions, where we can see him at every moment trying to come to terms with, and to embody, the meaning of notes already there. The image of Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Cosí waving dry the Polaroids they have just taken of their lovers perfectly captures the fluttery thirty-second notes in the violins that introduce their first duet. The seductively insistent ostinato of Don Giovanni’s serenading mandolin is answered and mimicked by the cool indifference of an oscillating electric fan. The heart-easing larghetto lullaby for two violas that soothes Orlando, exhausted after his fit of madness, is mirrored in his being wheeled inch by inch across the stage on a hospital stretcher. “In sweetest harmony they lived,” Saul’s daughter Michal sends arching out over the bodies of her father and brother; in Sellars’s staging, she is lying on her back between them, lifting their limp arms, as Saul’s Watergate tape machine unwinds its reel to the music’s slow tread and falling cadences. These anachronistic images, witty and moving, are so bound to the score that we don’t merely lower our defenses against them but use them to bring ourselves closer to the music.

SELLARS’S ATTEMPTS to produce on stage the most complex messages of the score have led him to circumvent traditional stagecraft in other ways besides anachronism. In Don Giovanni, for example, near the end of “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” (the aria in which the peasant girl Zerlina tries to appease her bridegroom’s jealousy of the Don), the soprano actually turns away from the audience during her showiest runs so that her descending roulades and the ascending cello obbligato can both be seen—in the smile rising on Masetto’s lips, against his will, as he slowly succumbs to Zerlina’s irresistible connubial promises.

Sellars has also developed an unorthodox but remarkably successful solution to that bête noire of Baroque opera directors, the da capo aria—an aria with a long opening section that, after a notquite-so-long digression, is repeated “from the top,” often with additional embellishments. Usually the singer merely stands in one spot until the ordeal is over. Sellars makes the aria dramatic by, for example, underlining the emotional contrast between two exhibitionistic outer sections and an inwardly directed middle one. But he has also shown that the repeated (da capo) section need not represent a return so much as an extension, a shaking limb that the character can venture even farther out on. In the aria “Capricious man,” from the oratorio Saul, Merab, Saul’s snobbish older daughter, ridicules her father for his violent envy and fear of David (at whom he has just thrown his javelin). “Capricious man, in humour lost, By ev’ry wind of passion toss’d!” she sings over and over again in endless coloratura sixteenths. This intractable aria is often dismissed by Handel scholars (“Superfluous”—Winton Dean) and cut by music directors. In Sellars’s staging of the da capo the cackling giggles of the first part become harder and harder to distinguish from hysterical sobs. Satire or obsession, anger or pain—the borderlines dissolve with only the slightest intensification of emotion. Sellars tells us that this is what the da capo aria is about.

But most radical of all is Sellars’s solution to a fundamental problem in all musical staging—how to move to music. The usual theatrical illusions of reality make little sense when performed to music that is rhythmically inconsistent with “normal” movement. Sellars almost completely rejects naturalism for a vocabulary—an encyclopedia—of gestures culled from a breathtaking multiplicity of sources: classical painting and sculpture, silent movies and cartoons, vaudeville and burlesque, Broadway and Las Vegas, TV commercials and rock videos (he recently directed a video for Herbie Hancock), D’Oyly Carte and Oriental theater, deaf signing (he staged a Kabuki western for the National Theater of the Deaf) and martial arts, not to mention more traditional dance and mime.

The expressive freedom this has allowed him is as continually astonishing as the music itself. Take, for example, the painful yet hilarious entrance of Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni’s abandoned mistress—a knockabout vaudeville shtick with a beat-up valise that the frazzled Elvira schleps back and forth with each two-bar phrase, sits on at every cadence, and slams to the ground at the most violently plunging and leaping intervals. Or the slow-motion choreography of love, rejection, and unwanted consolation that is worked out to the vocal intricacies of the great trio that ends the first act of Orlando, the partners (two sopranos and an alto) changing with each recombination of voices; the lovers and ex-lovers brushing past one another, reaching out to one another, pulling at one another, and falling, crawling, even rolling on the stage, as the high-arching roulades keep weaving and reweaving Handel’s ecstatic web of sound. At one point Dorinda, the rejected shepherdess, stops, bends her knees, and holds her arm over her head in the position of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave.

In these gestures Sellars insists that the very artifice and formality of the music hold a seriousness, an urgency, that goes far beyond, say, the uninhibited emotionalism of verismo opera. The stage gestures bring to the surface the emblematic power of the music. By the end of Elvira’s aria we perceive her battered suitcase as an image both of Don Giovanni (what she’d like to do to him) and of herself (what he’s done to her), and, more abstractly, of the heavy baggage of one’s past that one neither can nor entirely wants to leave behind. The comedy and the pathos are both in the score. If the gorgeous music prevents the Orlando threesome from settling into a simple-minded romantic do-si-do, then why shouldn’t the staging? Sellars has found a way to make us see what the music wants us to hear—that for the characters, however absurd or conventional their situation, everything is at stake.

The implications of even the slightest gesture, then, the smallest shift in expectation—as in the music—may be cataclysmic. Some of Sellars’s most chilling moments are his visualizations of such musical details. In the terzettino of the first act of Cosí, the two sisters and the cynical Don Alfonso, who has secretly wagered with Ferrando and Guglielmo, their fiancés, against their fidelity, sing a sublime prayer for the men’s safe voyage and return (“May the wind be smooth, the waves tranquil, and may every element respond benignly to our desire”). Sellars has the women kneeling and Alfonso standing behind them, their hands pressed together in prayer. Soon the hands begin to sway with the tranquil sixteenth-note waves undulating in the muted strings. Twenty-two bars in, halfway through the word “desir,” Mozart brings in flutes and horns for the first time—a stabbing chord that suddenly clouds the harmony and threatens the expected resolution. On that disturbing chord, unacknowledged in most stagings, Sellars has Alfonso cover his eyes. His desire, radically different from what the others wish for, must be masked. What he knows his desire will cause—deceit, betrayal, disillusionment—may be too painful even for him to face.

But as in the work of one of Sellars’s role models, George Balanchine, these gestures are seminal, moving threads building toward an increasingly resonant network of cross-references. The rest of Cosí will see Alfonso’s desire coming to pass and the gently swaying hands, an emblem of ideal love (“Un’ aura amorosa”), replaced by a gesture of groping and self-imprisonment: a character kneeling, reaching out a hand (Ferrando’s in “Ah, lo veggio,” then Fiordiligi’s in “Per pietà”) blindly through the bars of a Baroque balustrade. The lovers, and Alfonso, too, are bewildered by their own desires; the opera ends without any resolution. Sellars liberates the dark harmonies and allows us to see them as part of the dazzling surface.

SELLARS’S CHOICE OF musical repertoire isn’t exactly modest—the most complex and ambitious works of the greatest composers, works whose familiarity or obscurity he takes as a kind of license to approach them on his own terms. It is ironic that his current position in Washington does not permit him to do what he does better than anyone else—direct opera. For that he’ll have to go to Glyndebourne (1986), Houston (1987), and the Met (1988), and his present contract allows him only one outside engagement a year. One of the more pertinent facts of his work is that he, again like Balanchine, has gathered around him a “permanent floating” repertory company, which includes the extraordinarily versatile conductor Craig Smith, his most frequent partner and musical adviser; such brilliant—and game—young actor-singers as the soprano Susan Larson (Cleopatra, Fiordiligi, Yum-Yum, Dorinda, Michal, Elvira), the heroic countertenor Jeffrey Gall (Caesar, Orlando, David), and the baritones James Maddalena (Don Giovanni, Guglielmo, Zoroastro, and Achilles) and Sanford Sylvan (Alfonso, the alternate Orlando, and major characters in Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse and in the eye-opening double bill of Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel and Bach’s Cantata 60); and even a corps of designers and technicians. How willing—how competent—are the more established stars of the opera world to give Sellars what he requires? Can he resist the temptation to work only in their territory? It would be a sad irony if he were forced to sacrifice his uniquely flexible, sympathetic, and experienced band of conspirators on the glittering altar of its own success.