A tale of two operas: why one worked and one didn't

As we have gotten further and further away from opera as a contemporary art (and entertainment) form, the issue of how the works are to be staged has become increasingly complex. This issue was brought home by two contrasting stagings of Handel operas at the PepsiCo Summerfare festival on the Purchase campus of State University of New York. Peter Sellars set ``Giulio Cesare'' in something like modern-day Cairo; Nicholas McGegan re-created in ``Teseo'' the sort of staging and gesticulation that would have been seen in Handel's time (or, at any rate, what exhaustive research indicates would have been seen).

There are two fundamental sides to the issue.

On the one hand, an opera is the vision first and foremost of the composer; to communicate that vision best, one must be scrupulously faithful to the spirit of all the stage directions -- in the text and in the music.

On the other hand, operas were often written to communicate a specific message at a specific time. It was not by accident that Mozart, at once the pet and the victim of the class system of his day, picked up Beaumarchais's inflammatory play about the class system for one of his towering masterworks, ``Le Nozze di Figaro.''

When Verdi wrote the Biblical opera ``Nabucco,'' he used the downtrodden Israelites in Babylon as a metaphor for the Italians oppressed by Austrian rule. It was not surprising that, on one hearing, the haunting chorus ``Va, pensiero'' became a rebellious national anthem. Verdi knew his public and how it would react. We do not get so specifically wrought up when we hear this music today. We may get exercised over seeing ``Tosca'' set in Mussolini's Italy, or ``Norma'' in a Polish concentration camp (it has been done), but that is a different sort of reacting.

Clearly, the director first has to determine what the opera is about and go from there. If he has the skill to take a risky stance and make the audience believe it in every facet, he will have achieved something. If not, a sensitive ``re-creation'' is in order.

Too often, however, one sees changes as a cover-up for lack of thought on the director's part. One also sees boring costume pageants masquerading as vital productions, again as an excuse for lack of inspiration. And yet, fidelity to the composer's period and vision can be shatteringly effective if the director knows his score, his history, and his stagecraft.

Italy's Giorgio Strehler chose the challenge of period fidelity for his ``Nozze di Figaro'' (which the Paris Opera brought to the United States during the Bicentennial celebrations). He was able to get all the revolutionary messages across to a modern audience while being remarkably true to Mozart. This brilliant production -- one of the most perfect I have ever seen -- was a coming together of directo rial genius and consummate stagecraft.

Franco Zeffirelli achieves much the same thing in his extraordinary Metropolitan Opera stagings of Puccini's ``La Boh`eme'' or ``Tosca,'' with one big difference: The Puccini operas are not about anything more than the story at hand. Fortunately, Mr. Zeffirelli knows it. ``Tosca'' is no archetype; Mimi's death does not perceptibly change our view of the human condition in the way Desdemona's does in Verdi's ``Otello.''

Perhaps this is why trying to ``make'' something of Puccini usually spells disaster. Witness the Andrei Serban staging of ``Turandot'' for Covent Garden (seen for the first time in Los Angeles last summer as part of the Olympic Arts Festival). He created a terrible mishmash of idioms -- a Kabuki setting for an Italian composer's melodrama about a Chinese princess who hates men. Fundamentally, he missed Puccini altogether.

Some directors have a genius for vital re-creation. Others are profoundly innovative -- Wagner's grandson Wieland changed the face of Wagner direction so radically at the beginning of the 1950s that we are still feeling the repercussions. In fact, the recent Nicholas Lehnhoff staging of the ``Ring'' in San Francisco is a reaction to Wieland Wagner. He added so many wonderful things that were faithful to the spirit of the music. I think particularly of the end of the second act of ``Die Walk"ure'': The dying Siegmund, embraced by his godfather, Wotan, looks into his eyes as if to ask, ``Is this really how you wanted my life to end?'' It's not in Wagner, and yet the moment was shattering.

Was there anything shattering in Purchase?

Mr. Sellars is only 27, and in the exploratory (and sometimes juvenile) phase of his career. At his best, he clearly understands what the text and the music are telling us. And because Mr. McGegan's ``Teseo'' showed us what Handelian stagings were all about, we could see that Mr. Sellars was effectively translating those conventions to today's imagery and theatrical skills.

McGegan lacked the directorial skills, rehearsal time, and proficient cast to give more than a dutiful reenactment, but it was sufficient to elucidate, by comparison, how clearly Sellars understood the conventions of Handel's time. In ``Teseo'' we saw the artificial stage deportment of the singers (costumed in baroque clothes); we saw characters descending in cloud machines; we witnessed ``magical'' transformations, etc. In ``Giulio Cesare,'' each character had a specific language of gestures -- a serious attempt to translate the style of yesterday into the vocabulary of today; Cleopatra descending on a construction-crane hook was the contemporary realization of the cloud device; a sudden lighting change transformed a desolate landscape into an ethereal dream world.

It would be delightful to see Mr. Sellars eschewing the updating he says he detests. But for now, updating triggers his creativity and therefore helps him hone his craft. He also proves that updating can be valid: The audience I saw ``Cesare'' with was entertained and, in the end, moved, which is exactly what Handel set out to do in the first place. -- 30 --

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