American director Peter Sellars stages Handel's oratorio 'Theodora' at a premier European summer festival

In England, a Feast of Music at Glyndebourne

You're listening to a rare Handel oratorio sublimely performed and daringly staged in a gemlike opera house of perfect proportions. Then it's dinner intermission time (80 minutes), and you drift out into the Sussex sunshine like Ginger and Fred, in black tie, of course.

The country-manor traditions of the 62-year-old Glyndebourne Festival Opera have handily survived replacing the old 800-seat opera house with an opera house of 1,200 seats (including some available by lottery to nonmember applicants). Glyndebourne is one of the world's leading opera festivals, an idyllic summer retreat comparable in setting to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony.

And for the third time, Glyndebourne has survived a gusty breeze from the West - the prolific thirty-something American director Peter Sellars. His 1990 "Magic Flute" prompted Glyndebourne's first boos. This season the enfant terrible, as British papers still tardily call him, has won both audiences and critics with Handel's "Theodora."

This was Handel's own favorite among his oratorios. It contains both a chorus he considered much better than the famed "Hallelujah" chorus in his "Messiah" - and a familiar hymn tune to which a later hand gave the words: "Take my life, and let it be/ Consecrated, Lord, to Thee."

Such is the consecration of Theodora (sung by Dawn Upshaw), a Christian martyr in 4th-century Antioch, where, incidentally, the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. She is beloved by Didymus (David Daniels), a Roman officer who becomes a Christian for her sake. She refuses to worship the Roman gods and is condemned to prostitution. Didymus helps her escape by exchanging clothes - his "habit" in the text becomes a military jumpsuit in Sellarsland. When he is caught, she joins him, and they are executed.

The press inevitably played up the death scene. Soprano Upshaw and countertenor Daniels do seem part of a "blissfull holy Choir" in their final duet. But Sellars asks performers to sing in virtually any position, and they lie strapped to operating tables like crucifixes. He does not shrink from theatricality to jar attention to social issues. Here he dramatizes capital punishment by using the contemporary method of lethal injection, ominously monitored by lights and colored fluids.

But then comes a healing possibility, as the Christian Irene - enthrallingly sung by Lorraine Hunt - joins the chorus to pray for equal zeal to prove "that Love is stronger far than Death."

The oratorio's total effect recalls what a brilliant classical musician has written about Sellars. Pianist Russell Sherman, in his new book, "Piano Pieces," applauds Sellars's efforts to tap Mozart and Handel "to investigate the predicaments of contemporary life." Sherman goes on to say, "I feel that Sellars respects the text, and that he explores it to identify the condemnations of social injustice intrinsic in all great art and its just interpretations."

At the second performance, it was easy to see why Sellars and a superb company - imagine Upshaw and Hunt on the same stage - were acclaimed at the May 17 opening. Sellars has always cherished the music. "Theodora" is especially all of a piece. The visual shocks and pleasures occasionally distract but mostly make one listen afresh to the glorious sounds and engage the exalting message. Movements of the chorus, for example, seem programed to the score, expressing feeling with tilted heads or semaphoric gestures.

Audience members are like early arrivals at some kind of meeting, facing the backs of empty gilded chairs on stage. They face a simple altar or lectern. The overture begins - impeccably played by the early-music Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by William Christie. Performers in 1990s casual dress saunter in to sit in the chairs, greeting friends, as if they, and maybe we all, have been there before.

Is this going to be a musicale? A sermon? No, suddenly we're aware of a uniformed man with machine gun. Then the business-suited President (as he is called in Thomas Morell's original 18th-century text) takes the podium, threatening those who refuse to worship Jove. His is the first solo voice we hear, and it is the rich bass of Norway's Frode Olsen. He satirizes the despot with a sunny smile and skillful comic byplay in the classic comic vein of Hercules staggering in on ancient tragedy.

In the background, against a plain white wall, are enormous new-old bottles of colored and cracked glass. As the tale of resisting ancient and modern oppression unfolds, these ornaments bring to mind the Biblical broken vessel and vessels of wrath, vessels of mercy.

The tyrant's guards are ashamed of what they have to do. Their superior, Septimius (Richard Croft), adheres to the gods of his parents; he will kill Christians if ordered, but it will be with pity. Didymus agonizes over his defection from Rome because his religion condemns disobedience to a just government, and he has to decide what is just.

Glyndebourne's elaborate program book identifies performers only by their appearances here. No reference to Dawn Upshaw's stellar opera and recording credits. No notice that Hunt has just played Handel's "Xerxes" in the United States and sings the title role of "Theodora" in the fine CD conducted by Nicholas McGegan.

As for Sellars, in a brief chat between acts, he confirmed "Theodora" was a labor of love, a goal for a decade. When I mentioned the sense of community in some scenes, he referred to Corinthians for the idea of music - psalms - bringing people together. Later I found I Cor. 14:26 - "How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying." I could believe Sellars would turn to such a source. Along with the controversial flourishes, he does use art for edifying, enfant terrible or not.

* 'Theodora' runs at Glyndebourne through June 21 in repertory with "Cos fan tutte," "Yevgeny Onyegin," "Lulu," "Arabella," and "Ermione." It will appear on television in Britain June 15 and will tour Britain in the fall. Tickets range from 110 ($169) to 10 ($15) for limited standing room. The festival itself continues through August 25.

The address is: Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 5UU, England. Tel. from US: 011 44 1273 812321.

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