As just about everyone knows by now, Peter Sellars directed radical productions of Mozart’s three operas to librettos by da Ponte at the Pepsico Summerfare Festival in Purchase, N.Y. during the latter half of the ’80s. Everyone knows about these productions because, by setting The Marriage of Figaro in Trump Tower, Don Giovanni on a mean street in Harlem and Cosi fan tutti in a Long Island diner, Sellars attracted a tremendous amount of attention. In the summer of 1989, after presenting the three operas cyclically for the final Summerfare season, Sellars filmed them for video in Vienna. They were broadcast on PBS-TV last year, and have, at last, come out on home video.
These productions been so contentiously scrutinized and debated that their appearance on the London label in VHS videotape and laserdisc formats has been almost anticlimactic. Certainly, they stir up many of the same old complaints about the sacrilege of updating, but updating opera has been going on for so long and to such an extent – especially in Europe – that it is almost standard operatic practice these days.
But what really makes Sellars so controversial an operatic practitioner is that he is no typical updater, and the true radicalism of his approach becomes all the more evident in his video work. Sellars claims to despise the whole notion of concept productions, and denies doing them. He believes, instead, that since Mozart came closer than any other artist to capturing and articulating the human condition, it is worthwhile to hold ourselves and our times up to the measure of Mozart to see how we stack up. Creating a New York trilogy of the Mozart/da Ponte operas was simply a device to help us recognize ourselves in these characters. It is not especially important that Don Giovanni become a drug dealer. But it is important that the Don not be funny or foreign; he is a desperate character rushing headlong into the abyss, unable to discover a way out – a situation neither amusing nor unfamiliar.
In the videos, Sellars has now gone one step further. Most opera video is either a document of a performance in the opera house or an opera film. “What I like is that these videos look like TV,” Sellars said in a recent conversation. “That’s why a lot of people were stunned when PBS first broadcast the productions – they were flipping channels, and they flipped to this thing that looked just like the cop show on every other channel. Then suddenly they noticed that there was music, and people were singing. We’ve taken the situation and the comedy and allowed them to be as deep as Mozart happens to be. So it’s really nice to subvert television in that way, at the same time using the vocabulary that television has perfected, these daydream diners, these nonexistent street corners, the pathetic love life of the rich and forlorn. All standard television material. In some ways these operas find their ultimate form on TV.”
So subversive, in fact, are these videos that they deconstruct Sellars’s own productions. Relying upon claustrophobic closeups in Don Giovanni, for instance, Sellars never allows a long shot to show the whole of George Tsypin’s astonishing set. The director doesn’t even fear undercutting much of the stage action by showing only reaction shots. But since the Don and his sidekick, Leporello, happen to be sung by remarkable identical twin baritones, Eugene and Herbert Parry, the effect of the intimate camera is extraordinary. It is as if Don Giovanni is so self-absorbed in his own compulsion to call up death that he sees only himself reflected in the world.
“When Herbert and Eugene start looking at each other, you know you never saw that in the theatre,” Sellars says. “You guessed it was there, but you never saw it. And here in a closeup you can really see it.” The result is that the o sometimes seems to take place inside Don Giovanni’s head, which turns out to be an even more frightening place than a Harlem street.
In Cosi – possibly the most profound opera ever written about the relationships between men and women, as well as the most perfect of all of Sellars’s opera stagings – the psychological intimacy proves profoundly wrenching. The use of closeups on singers able to convey great emotion through both music and action creates opera as catharsis to a degree impossible on the stage. Even more than Don Giovanni, Cosi relies on singers to express as much through their acting as their singing, and whereas most singers look just awful in closeup – mouth gaping open, brow furled in tense concentration, eyes nervously darting to the conductor for assurance – singers like Susan Larson (an arresting Fiordiligi whose face seems to bring out the deepest meaning of the music) and Sanford Sylvan (a searing Don Alfonso whom you can actually see feeling what the music tells him to feel) are, like the Perry twins, all the more effective the closer you get to them.
Still such an approach has its drawbacks; in Cosi, it requires that the sheer elegance of the staged production be sacrificed in the bargain. Sellars’s brilliantly layered mise-en-scene had pitted a kind of refined 18th-century sensibility against the chaotic emotions of the characters, even to the point of laying out the diner’s dimensions to fit the proportional architectural schemes of the earlier age. And the production’s elaborate roundelay of movement and gesture is lost as well.
In The Marriage of Figaro, however, the video works on every level. The garish colors of the Trump Tower set translate perfectly to the video screen’s brightly lit two dimensions, and Sellars allows himself to have fun; the camera pulls in and out and all over the place. Figaro, especially as staged by Sellars, is the least ambiguous of the operas – Cosi ends in profound disquiet; Don Giovanni concludes with the unresolved quest for salvation; but Sellars’s Figaro leaves you with hope, with a sense that these people might actually work it out in the end.
The videos are not without their excesses. While Sellars’s fanciful synopses of the operas, which are included, are illuminating and entertaining, his slang subtitles seem too in-your-face on repeated viewing. The video work itself is sometimes a bit crude for these sophisticated productions, although Sellars likes the fact that the roughness lends the performances a “live” quality. The laserdisc sound has a kind of harshness that is not flattering to the singer’s voice, and the orchestra-a not-very-responsive Vienna Symphony, tepidly conducted by Craig Smith – is too recessed.
But these are quibbles, never enough to rob the performances of their irrepressible intensity or immediacy. In fact, as an indication of the sheer impact this kind of video opera can have, Sellars says that his recently filmed production Handel’s Giulio Cesare (which will be released on London this fall) will not, this time, be shown on PBS. Sellars updated the opera to the present-day Middle East, and the images proved just too upsetting, too highly charged for television, even though the production dates from 1985. “Television cannot deal with Americans being taken hostages in the Middle East,” Sellars says. “And so people were panicked. It showed at the Cannes video market during the Gulf War, and people were freaking out, because it was too close.”
But then it is just that closeness that separates Sellars’s video opera from all others. Or as the director enthusiastically puts it: “I think we’re used to videos cooling things out – opera videos, in particular, are basically a cool situation. And these are so hot.”