Sellars does some provocative tinkering with Handel's `Cesare'

The PepsiCo-sponsored ``Summerfare'' performing-arts festival of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase is clearly turning into a provocative undertaking. This year, dance companies, orchestras, chamber ensembles, a French and an Italian theater troupe, etc., will perform in the three theaters of SUNY's Arts Center. Of perhaps greatest interest is the presence of the young director Peter Sellars, who currently heads the American National Theatre project in Washington.

He has staged Handel's ``Giulio Cesare in Egitto'' (``Julius Caesar in Egypt'') with his now-expected updating, tongue-in-cheek humor, blatant irony, evocative references to current political situations, respectful irreverence, and ample dollops of excessive tinkering that only a 27-year-old of overwhelming talent can dare to try, for better or for worse.

Mr. Sellars states in his program note that he detests updating. This has not stopped him from setting this opera in Cairo, circa today, to demonstrate the relevance of Handel's tale of the power struggles and machinations, set off by the arrival of the major superpower's head of state (for Caesar, read President of the United States). Simultaneously, he and conductor Craig Smith have offered an uncut ``Giulio Cesare'' and have demonstrated not only that the art form known as opera seria is vital, but that this opera is clearly Handel's masterwork in the genre.

It is gratifying to note how Mr. Sellars has grown in his command of stagecraft, how much he has learned in matters of self-editing (while observing just how much more he has to learn), how much more consistently he makes his visions theatrical reality. On Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz's arrestingly clean, bold sets, images abound. The first two acts take place by the swimming pool (the orchestra pit) of a snazzy new Cairo hotel, half unfinished, half bombed out. The final act takes place on a vast landscape that includes a Ramses II head from Abu Simbel, which allows for the prows of a supertanker and a superbattleship to glide in and encompassess the sardonic finale, bunny hop and all.

What of Mr. Sellars's characters? Cleopatra is suitably loyal only to herself and to power and money -- the right kind, however. In her final aria, she actually becomes a Busby Berkeley gold digger. Caesar is the stereotypical self-preening, shallow sort so often associated with top powers throughout history. Cleopatra's brother Ptolemy is a stock Arab playboy obsessed with power. And so on. In every case, the libretto and music confirm that Mr. Sellars has the Handelian essence of these people down cold.

True, the fertility of his invention can become trying. Nevertheless, most of this production illuminates with superb images. For loony fun, I'll never forget the vision of a serenading Cleopatra in disguise, descending from the flies on the hook of a construction crane. The most unsettling image? A blindfolded Cleopatra with a pistol to her temple -- chillingly reminiscent of those all-too-familiar Middle Eastern hostage shots beamed around the world. When a defeated, half-drowned Caesar slithers laboriously over the desolate landscape of the third act, he appears so small, so frail, so insignificant, that the entire question of ``What is man'' is electrifyingly raised.

Mr. Sellars has surrounded himself with people skillfully able to abet his vision, from Miss Spatz-Rabinowitz, to costume designer Dunya Ramicova, to James F. Ingalls, responsible for the superb lighting. Musically, conductor Smith sees each act as an integrated whole, rather than an endless series of set arias and pieces. The buoyant, beautiful playing from the Festival Chamber Orchestra was a constant pleasure to encounter.

Casting in Sellars productions relies on the same nucleus of singers. In the case of Jeffrey Gall (Caesar), Sellars has one of the finest, most musically sensitive countertenors of the day. In Susan Larson (Cleopatra), he has his quintessential performer. She takes to his style like ink to a blotter. She coped valiantly with the taxing coloratura, although unfortunately her soprano has thinned out of late. The rest of the singers all managed their parts honorably, but this ``Cesare,'' which runs through July 21, can in no way be called a vocal feast.

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