Sellars Mini-Opera Staging Passes a Test. MUSIC: REVIEW
NEW YORK — YOU never know where director Peter Sellars will pop up next. Just when it seems the West Coast has become his permanent base - he's in charge of the Los Angeles Festival and teaches at UCLA - his name is being mentioned in connection with a possible reorganization at the Opera Company of Boston, and he lands in New York with an operatic evening that's as popular as it is unconventional. It draws large crowds to the box office, elicits cheers on opening night, and shows that composers as different as Kurt Weill and J.S. Bach can be combined in a seamless web of expression if their work is approached with a freely creative spirit.
The unusual production showed that Mr. Sellars's twin fascinations with opera and theater are as productive today as when his career was first skyrocketing a decade ago. As a bonus, it also showed that New York's new arts auditorium - the Brooklyn Academy of Music's renovated Majestic Theater - is as suitable for opera as for the drama and multimedia events that have already taken place there.
Nothing short of replacement will make its benchlike seats truly comfortable, and I'm still getting used to its deliberately dilapidated d'ecor. But its acoustics are crisp and clear, even when (as on Sellars's recent opening night) stormy weather and a leaky roof conspire to add a ``splish-splash'' of raindrops to the musical sounds emanating from the stage. Presented as the second attraction in the BAM Opera series, the Brooklyn Academy's newest performing-arts venture consisted of vividly contrasting works: ``Das Kleine Mahagonny,'' a 1927 song cycle by Weill and Bertolt Brecht, and ``Conversations With Fear and Hope After Death,'' a selection of Bach arias, ensembles, and recitatives.
There was nothing haphazard about the program, however. The feisty ``Mahagonny Songspiel,'' which was expanded into a full-fledged opera in 1929, positively throbs with a sarcastic hatred of materialism, capitalism, and the ``good life'' as defined by sensualists who can't see past the end of their own decadent noses. Heard right after this, the Bach selections projected a prayerful quality that sought not merely to reject evil but to negate it through the redemptive contemplation of truth and goodness.
Performed together, the Weill/Brecht and Bach pieces thus constituted a drama of sin, atonement, and deliverance. Taking the idea of ``drama'' literally, Sellars and conductor Craig Smith presented the works in the form of a mini-opera. This approach naturally suited the Weill/Brecht songs, and the vividness of the result supported Mr. Smith's contention that, although the Bach pieces constitute ``dramas of the soul rather than the flesh, [they] seem to cry for movement and the stage.''
To their credit, however, Sellars and Smith did not push stagecraft so far that it competed with the nontheatrical music. The action took place in a limited area, focused on a six-member cast wearing unobtrusive costumes, and used a few simple objects as props.
Next month BAM Opera offers the Paris Opera's production of Lully's tragedy ``Atys.'