Spanning the centuries with an 18th-century opera

Is Peter Sellars putting everybody on?

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.

But the real star of ''Orlando'' is the diminutive, peripatetic Mr. Sellars, whose leaps of imagination and studied reverence for the score give this production the stature it enjoys.

What kind of person decides to wheel a back-country mobile home (this mobile home somehow changes character during the opera from a bizarre prop to a real place with its own history of comfort and sorrow) into a baroque opera? I decided a couple of weeks ago to track Sellars down in his natural habitat.

The habitat then (he has since moved to New York) happened to be a small, rustic colonial-style restaurant, which provided a suitably anachronistic backdrop for this small, impish man with sandy, disobedient hair that he keeps nervously brushing aside, piercing blue eyes, small delicate hands, and a flimsy plastic-looking parka.

He made the transition from 20th-century Cambridge street corner into 18 th-century hearthside ambiance with the kind of ease you'd expect from a man who has written that Handel's opera ''treats time in a particularly creative way. . . . It is the great gift of music that it allows our minds to wander in an abstracted and somehow comforting private landscape.''

During the next hour or so the conversation scurried, more than wandered, over Sellars's own private philosophical terrain as he attempted to describe what he found in Handel's concept that inspired his own leap into this particular staging.

He says this ''Orlando'' was partly a response to what he calls ''the scandal'' of attempting to get at the heart of baroque music by using original instruments in supposedly original scale orchestras. What the musicologists and other purists miss, when they try to re-create baroque music by looking to the historical setting of the music, he argues, is the essence of the composer's ideas. That's the omission that this production is supposed to remedy.''

Music is not about what it sounds like,'' he says with fervor. ''It's not the original instruments in the orchestra that count. . . . You go for content, not for style. Music is completely the spiritual content. The question is not what you play on, but the spiritual values of the performance.''

Hence the decision to eschew traditional staging techniques in ''Orlando,'' and go for the modern equivalents that will bring out the spiritual values of the music.''

The 18th century is when country life and city life began to separate,'' he points out, referring to the many ''farewells to the forest'' that run through Act 2. ''They (18th-century denizens) were feeling the pull of technology. And Orlando goes around destroying the forests and polluting the rivers in his anger.''

The second act is a hymn to the environment that we are destroying.''

The third act of ''Orlando'' does indeed take place on a stage littered with cardboard boxes, among which the four characters make a last desparate search to work things out the way they want them, until they, too, are swept up in the transcendent purpose of the music.

Musing about this final, powerful upsurge in the opera, Sellars observes that ''the music knows it before the characters do.'' There is a suspended, long moment when they continue lost in the maze of confusion, while the music is already bringing things majestically together.

And it is this moment that most seems to amaze Mr. Sellars.

''There they are, in this desolate, destroyed landscape . . . and they still can't find each other,'' he says quietly. As he does, it's obvious he is talking not about mythical characters, but people - people utterly real to him today. In the end, it is this fact that makes this ''Orlando'' what it is: not the send-ups, not the brilliant staging, but the living people that Handel saw in his mind's eye.

These characters, and Mr. Sellars's almost obsessive interest in their well-being, are what makes this ''Orlando'' a high moment on the operatic stage.

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