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Spanning the centuries with an 18th-century opera

By Christopher Swan / February 16, 1982

Cambridge, Mass.

Is Peter Sellars putting everybody on?

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The question seems fair enough, when you realize that Mr. Sellars, a recent Harvard graduate, has staged some 40 productions of operas and plays - mostly in New England - that have raised the hackles of many a critic and devoted opera fan with their bizarre send-ups of some revered, august works.

His latest effort, a staging of Handel's three-hour opera ''Orlando'' (appearing at Harvard's American Repertory Theater through March 14) has been called ''sophomoric horseplay'' and ''a shallow perversion (of Handel)'' by the New York Times.

But not everybody feels this way. A flock of serious theater and music critics (such as Newsweek's) have hailed ''Orlando'' as one of the most important works of the opera stage in recent memory.

And well they might. This elaborate transmutation of a piece of musical theater from 18th-century mythology to 20th-century relevance is nothing short of amazing. Part of the amazement stems from the Sellars decision to change the location of the opera from the sylvan surroundings of mythological gods to Cape Canaveral, and then to move the action through the Florida Everglades to the ''orange postnuclear glow of the Martian landscape.''

But a change of scenery doth not a great opera - nor even a new one - make. And ''Orlando'' is both great and new. It is at once an assault on the funny bone and an invasion of the heart, a magical piece of stagecraft that uses irreverent humor to do reverence to a great musical creation of the baroque era.

''The scene opens,'' explains Sellars's mimeographed synopsis (handed out at each performance) ''at Mission Control, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral. Zoroaster - scientist, magician, and Project Supervisor - is studying distant galaxies of the solar system.''

Surrounding Zoroaster are high-tech structures of piping, including a rocket launch pad. There is a vast white video screen covered with faint projections of the heavens and a long control panel. Zoroaster, in white technician's coat, carrying a clipboard, sings of the turmoil involving the opera's four star-crossed lovers.

For the next 45 minutes or so - during the elaborate setting up of plot and musical themes - characters lift off in a rocket-side elevator, drop in from the heavens on a heart-shaped seat, are wheeled over in a hilarious trailer-park mobile home, hide behind a drinking fountain which pops up from the stage when the libretto calls for a fountain to appear.

I watched the first act of ''Orlando'' through a veil of tears, the kind you shed when your sides ache from laughter. But soon the hilarity begins to subside and the real business of ''Orlando'' comes graphically into focus.

What we have here are four people whose emotions are caught in a tangled web of betrayed hopes and unfulfilled longings. Beneath the heroic posturing and bad poetry of the libretto, they move in some pretty deep waters.

These waters are to be found in Handel's music, which ignored the fact that much of the plot was designed for the pomp-and-circumstance theatrical fashion of the day, and went on to plumb the depths of human joy and sorrow with both introspection and majesty.

The beauty of Sellars's staging is that it tricks you into feeling the characters' dilemma by first getting your guard down (with humor) and then letting Handel's opera do its thing (with some straightforward acting and brilliant singing.)

The evening is a tour de force on several levels. Craig Smith's musical direction brings out the latent power and intricate beauty of the score; and the cast is superb. (Actually, there are two casts appearing on different nights.) The standout acting and musical performance is given by Susan Larson as Dorinda, whose ability to perform Chaplinesque physical schtick while navigating the treacherous musical courses Handel laid into the music are a source of constant bemused delight.