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Chapter Six— What Peter Sellars Did to Mozart
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Chapter Six—
What Peter Sellars Did to Mozart

Since the beginning of the 1980s, Peter Sellars (born in Pittsburgh in 1958) has become the most written-about director in the American theatre. Unique among the more creative and venturesome American stage directors, he has focused most of his attention on opera, specifically, since 1980, on the three operas Mozart wrote in collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte.

By the age of twelve, Sellars was familiar with Andrei Serban's version of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan , knew the theatre work of Cocteau and Josef Svoboda, and was running his own experimental puppet theatre. While in prep school, he outraged the drama instructor (who called him "a glib, exasperating, and bullheaded young man interested only in boosting his own ego") by directing offbeat productions of twentieth-century classics, instead of the safe Broadway standards the department preferred. After graduating from Phillips Academy at Andover, he spent a year in Paris, where he so immersed himself in experimental, anti-Boulevard theatre that he came to regard Samuel Beckett as the norm, Arthur Miller as the aberration. In effect, in his education as in his career, Sellars skipped completely over traditional theatre and theatre practice, and began at the adventurous cutting edge.

As an undergraduate at Harvard (1976–1980), he established his reputation as a theatricalist innovator. He was interested primarily not in new plays, but in unprecedented, challenging, and often slightly mad interpretations of the classics, both modern and historical—an interest later demonstrated in his radically revisionist interpretations of Handel, Mozart, and other opera composers. Soon after he arrived at Harvard, Sellars mounted a production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus in which the audience was led down from the balcony to the lobby of the theatre at intermission, where it was taunted by an angry Roman mob. While still a freshman, he produced a gaga version of the Edith Sitwell/William Walton Facade


(1922) on the Loeb Theatre main stage and made an unsuccessful proposal to the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players for a Gondoliers dealing with South African divestment. Rejected by (and rejecting) the Harvard theatre establishment, he formed his own "cabaret theatre" in a basement room of Adams House, his residential college. He proceeded to direct more than thirty plays there and elsewhere during his remaining years at Cambridge. "I was incredibly obnoxious," he has said of his Harvard years. "Even more obnoxious than I am now."

Among his Harvard productions were Mayakovsky's The Bedbug (based on the 1929 production by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the Russian experimental director on whom Sellars wrote his senior thesis),[1] which he set in the contemporary United States, with shopping carts and Muzak; and Pushkin's Boris Godunov , for which the audience was led in procession through the streets and tunnels of Cambridge, to find Boris's body lying in state in the basement of Adams House. The lead in his production of Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken was played by a pile of newspapers. He did a four-hour condensation of Wagner's Ring with puppets, real people, recorded music, and his own spoken plot summaries. His Macbeth was played by a total of three actors in a long, thin corridor; the audience lined the walls. His Anthony and Cleopatra was performed around (and in) the Adams House swimming pool—a concept he was to return to later, with a different Cleopatra, in directing Handel's Giulio Cesare . The Loeb—Harvard's well-equipped, semiprofessional theatre—invited him back the summer of his junior year to repeat The Bedbug , and also to direct Chekhov's The Three Sisters (with long silences and Chopin nocturnes between the scenes) and an unusually bloody version of Wedekind's Lulu .

He climaxed his Harvard career with an outrageous, four-hour-long King Lear

To Meyerhold the director was the only true artist of the theatre. He rewrote or adapted plays to fit his own conceptions and shaped every element in accordance with his own vision His was a director's theatre. . . .

Not interested in psychological realism, Meyerhold wished each of his actors to have a body as efficient as a machine in carrying out the orders of its operator. The actors, therefore, were trained in ballet, gymnastics, and circus techniques until they were capable of responding instantly to the needs of the director. . . .

Meyerhold wished to achieve theatricalism . Instead of striving for the illusion of real life, he wished the audience to remain conscious that it was in the theatre. He believed that, since the theatre was an art, all its means should be used self-consciously and to their fullest capabilities. Consequently, he removed the front curtain from the stage, placed lighting instruments in full view of the audience, used a 'gymnastic' approach to acting, juxtaposed many constrasting dramatic elements, and used totally abstract settings called constructions . . . . Ultimately, the stage, the actor, and all theatrical elements were viewed by Meyerhold as a single, complex machine to be used by the director. His was a dictatorial approach."


on the Loeb main stage in February 1980 ("an interminable mired melodrama set in a tempest of technology," wrote the Harvard Crimson ), in which he played the lead himself, after the black street performer he had originally cast for the role froze during rehearsals. (Sellars is a boyish, impish-looking fellow five feet, four inches tall: not one's standard image of a Lear.) The production included a stage covered with sheet metal, which reflected the overhead lights into the blinded eyes of the audience; screeching music performed oil steel cellos, which drowned out many of the lines; an hour-long high-tech storm scene; four working TV sets; an onstage Lincoln Continental (Lear's castle), which each night was stripped down to its frame. (Eight years later, Sellars was to play Shakespeare in Jean-Luc Godard's bizarre film "version" of King Lear .)

Even before Sellars graduated, Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre (which uses the Loeb Theatre as its home), hired him to direct Gogol's The Inspector General —another Meyerhold classic. The production involved giggling Russian ladies dressed in 1950s U.S. prom gowns, who were affixed to a sofa that wheeled in and out, a giant hanging fish, trapdoor entries and exits, music for kitchen pans and kazoo, and a fourteen-foot pineapple that rolled back and forth across the stage.

In 1983, he was engaged as director of the Broadway musical My One and Only (based on the 1927 George Gershwin/Busby Berkeley original), intended primarily as a vehicle for Twiggy and Tommy Tune. But his ideas ("Pajama Game meets Bertolt Brecht," as one critic characterized them) were rejected as unperformable, or at least uncommercial, before the first out-oil-town tryouts. About the same time, Sellars was awarded a five-year "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. The grant (which typically offers the recipient a $1,000 stipend annually for each year of his age), Sellars says, changed the whole nature of his work. "Without the money, I might have given up directing." With it, he felt he could accept whatever projects seemed to him "important and interesting to do." He accepted a three-year contract as artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company, where he directed a few unusual productions (of Beckett and Chekhov as well as Shakespeare), but broke his contract after one season. He also directed a Brecht play for the new La Jolla Playhouse in California, in which actors were sent into the farthest reaches of the stripped stage house. For the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, he concocted a bizarre four-hour pastiche called Hang on to Me , in which sixteen Gershwin songs were interpolated into a 1904 Maxim Gorki drama of Russian ennui.

The reason Sellars quit Boston in 1984 was that he had been offered, at twenty-six, the job of artistic director of what was to be America's own National Theatre, based at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His appointment generated a great deal of publicity and no little controversy. After less than two years, he withdrew from the post for what he called "a year's sabbatical." In fact, he never


returned, and the American National Theatre (ANT) project collapsed. Under Sellars's slightly frantic direction, the company had been spending from six to eight million dollars each year, instead of the projected two million. Several key productions (out of a total of twenty-four) had to shut down before the end of their scheduled runs. The last work to be performed played to 20 percent capacity houses.

Peter Sellars's own productions during the ANT's eighteen-month lifetime included a version of Sophocles's Ajax (repeated in La Jolla) set at the Pentagon after a Latin American war, in which the lead—a "signing" deaf actor—appeared first in a glass booth half-full of blood; Chekhov's A Seagull , with Colleen Dewhurst; Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight , with Stacey Keach and JoBeth Williams; and, in June 1985, a dazzlingly theatricalist, occasionally surrealist version of The Count of Monte Cristo , the popular nineteenth-century American melodrama based on Dumas's novel, which James O'Neill (Eugene's father) concocted and then toured in successfully for thirty years. Like some of Sellars's Harvard and Boston Shakespeare productions, The Count of Monte Cristo made use of devices (many of them championed by Meyerhold) Sellars has since incorporated into his versions of classic operas: the use of visible stage machinery as a part of the set; dramatic shifts from brilliant light to near-total darkness; circuslike coups de theatre; politically conscious interracial casting and contemporary references; the use of large symbolic objects, giddy clowning, and precisely choreographed movement; heads sticking out of trapdoor dungeons; and, overall, a wild intensity of directorial invention that frequently masked, submerged, or subverted the text from which it was supposedly drawn—no great matter, some critics conceded, for a text as essentially thin as that of Monte Cristo .

When he accepted the ANT job in 1984, he told an interviewer that, should the enterprise fail, "at any point I can go back and do Mozart operas in Boston. I don't have this need for everyone to love me." Since the summer of 1986, Sellars has devoted himself almost entirely to opera production, with the exception of a 1922 Soviet "epic" drama (Velimir Khlebnikov's Zanzegi ) he directed in Los Angeles and Brooklyn in 1986, and an aborted collaboration with the radically innovative Wooster Group of New York in 1987. In the latter year, he was appointed artistic director of the Los Angeles Festival. The first Los Angeles season under his direction, devoted almost entirely to little-known performers and other artists of non-European origin, took place in September 1990.

Peter Sellars's first production of a Mozart opera was a Don Giovanni he staged in September 1980 (at the age of twenty-two) for a festival at Manchester, New Hampshire. It was similar in many respects to the darkly contemporary versions he was to offer at the PepsiCo Summerfare in Purchase, New York, in 1987 and 1989. In the cast were James Maddalena and Susan Larson, who have remained


part of Sellars's "floating opera repertory company" ever since. His first Così fan tutte —closely resembling in concept the 1986, 1987, and 1989 Purchase versions, which featured four of the original six singers, the original conductor, and the original costume designs—was staged for the outdoor Castle Hill Festival in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in August 1984; it was also staged at the Theater der Welt festival in Stuttgart in June 1987. Sellars's version of The Marriage of Figaro was first performed at Purchase in the summer of 1988 and repeated there, along with the other two Da Ponte operas, the following summer. Don Giovanni and Figaro were performed in November and December 1989 at the Maison de Culture at Bobigny, northeast of Paris. All three were videotaped in Vienna in 1989 and telecast internationally during 1991, the bicentennial of Mozart's death.

In addition to the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas, Peter Sellars has also produced Handel's Saul and Orlando (the latter at the American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981); Haydn's Armida (Keene State College, New Hampshire, 1981); Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (Lyric Opera, Chicago, 1983); Peter Maxwell Davies's The Lighthouse (Boston Shakespeare Company, 1983); Handel's Giulio Cesare (PepsiCo Summerfare, Purchase, New York, 1985; Opera Company of Boston, 1987; Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, Brussels, 1988; and Théâtre des Amandiers, Nanterre, 1990, videotaped in 1990); Brecht/Weill's Das kleine Mahagonny , on a double bill with staged movements from several Bach cantatas (PepsiCo Summerfare, 1985; and Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1989); Nigel Osborne's The Electrification of the Soviet Union (Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Great Britain, 1987);John Adams's Nixon in China (Houston Grand Opera, November 1987; subsequently at Brooklyn, Washington, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, and Los Angeles); Wagner's Tannhäuser (Lyric Opera, Chicago, 1988); and Mozart's The Magic Flute (Glyndebourne Festival, 1990). His production of John Adams's new opera, The Death of Klinghoffer , opened in Brussels in March 1991, and was scheduled to be performed after that in five other cities in Europe and the United States.

I want to concentrate my discussion on Peter Sellars's productions of the three Mozart-Da Ponte works at Purchase, New York, in 1989. So I will point out only a few aspects of his other operatic ventures that seem pertinent to what he has chosen to do with Mozart.

The new operas he has produced, Nigel Osborne's The Electrification of the Soviet Union (based oil a Pasternak novel) and John Adams's Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer , tend to begin with Sellars's ideas, rather than those of the composer or librettist. On the evidence of such work, it is obvious that he is committed to bringing to the opera stage contemporary (and controversial) political and social issues and events.

But he is no less committed to doing this in his productions of eighteenth- and


nineteenth-century works. These are not simply "updatings," like Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto set among New York Mafiosi, or a turn-of-this-century Tosca . They are insistently, defiantly about today. His version of Handel's Orlando (composed in 1724) is set at Cape Canaveral mission control, with Handel's eighth-century hero as an astronaut in a bright orange jumpsuit, and the high priest Zoroastro as a space scientist who studies the stars on his video screen. Handel's Giulio Cesare (1711) is set by Sellars in the contemporary Middle East, alongside the swimming pool of an unfinished, terrorist-bombed Cairo hotel, where Cleopatra is working as a cocktail waitress. Caesar is played as a manic Western leader who is visiting Egypt for a summit conference, and threatening nuclear war. Handel's Saul (1739) Sellars restages as a Watergate drama; Haydn's Armida (1783) he sets in Vietnam, with local children playing the armies, both living and dead.

For the Lyric Opera's Tannhäuser (1845), the medieval German knight is turned into a popular modern American TV evangelist of the Jimmy Swaggart sort, teased into sin by the provocative, seminude nymphs of the Venusberg Motel. The song competition takes place in a replica of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, complete with microphones and TV cameras. The "gentlemen of Japan" in Sellars's Chicago Mikado (1885) are international business tycoons seated around a boardroom table, with a view out their window of the skyscrapers and neon of Tokyo today. Nanki Poo is a punk rocker who zooms in on a motorcycle; Yum Yum, a miniskirted twit.

Beyond his radical conversion of music dramas originally set in far different times and places into visible tracts for our times, Peter Sellars also introduces a great many individual modern-world artifacts and ideas, usually by way of costumes, props, or dances, like the Lincoln Continental in the Harvard King Lear . The shepherd Dorinda in Handel's Orlando wears Levi's cutoffs and lives in an Airstream trailer. During the overture to The Mikado , Japanese airline hostesses demonstrate to the audience the use of their overhead oxygen masks. The Mikado himself drives on stage in a red Datsun, surrounded by security guards. A chartered jet is ready to fly the pilgrims of Tannhäuser to Rome. (Some critics thought Rome an odd place for a lapsed American TV evangelist to go for his pardon.) Lipsticks, machine guns, ballpoint pens, plastic toys, jeeps, Big Macs, and other bits of the detritus of contemporary civilization take on, in Peter Sellars's operas, a heightened symbolic importance. Characters in kicky-current clothes perform modern chorus-line steps, twitchy rock dances, or vaudeville buck-and-wings to eighteenth-century music.

The mock-tangos and Mark Morris-designed dances are only the most explicit forms of choreography in Peter Sellars's operas. Since his earliest musical productions, Sellars has made use of an intricately stylized form of stage movement in which characters blend, writhe, roll, wave their fingers, and twist their torsos in patterns that not only follow, but also seem to "shape" or capture the music of the


score. In this, even more than in his elaborate structures of contemporary (and usually American) reference, Sellars reveals himself as a citizen less of the world of opera than of the Western theatrical avant-garde—a phrase, I should add, he professes to hate. In the hands of people like Robert Wilson, Peter Brook, Lee Breuer, Richard Foreman, Andrei Serban, Jerzy Grotowski, Yuri Lyubimov, Laurie Anderson, and Bill Irwin—the men and women who, more than most residents of the opera world, are Sellars's true kindred spirits—this antitraditional, all-embracing, and highly gestural branch of modern theatre has incorporated every possible form of expressive stage movement and effect: Noh and Kabuki, traditional mime, modern ballet, Javanese puppet theatre, vaudeville and burlesque, TV sitcom, American Sign Language, martial arts, commedia dell'arte, Broadway, pop, and folk dance.

Andrew Porter, writing in The New Yorker , has been especially impressed by this aspect of Peter Sellars's opera productions. Of Orlando , he has written, "In the trio, the three singers move through intricate, mazy patterns that seem not a gloss on the music but a marvelous, living enactment of it. Mr. Sellars' control of the long phrase, of stillness, of sudden shifts of direction, of musical and emotional counterpoints struck me as near-miraculous." Of Giulio Cesare : "Sellars hears Handel's music kinetically and realizes it in stage movement suggested by its flow, its tensions, its melodies, rhythms, and dynamic shapes. At its best, his 'choreography' is as subtle, musical, and revealing as Balanchine's."

What success Sellars has achieved in his opera productions so far depends to a very large degree on his having had at his disposal, for the past ten years, a coherent, continuous, and highly disciplined group of singing actors, musicians, and theatre technicians. The very intricacy of his patterns of stage movement, the frequently outrageous things he asks his singers to do (e.g., strip to their underwear, then sing complex eighteenth-century music while rolling on the floor), the circuslike tricks they must perform, and the intensity of certain characterizations could have been achieved only with extensive rehearsals with a unified and willing troupe of performers. The discipline of his company recalls that of Walter Felsenstein at the Komische Oper in East Berlin or Giorgio Strehler at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, in the years after 1947—two earlier theatricalist innovators in opera with whom Peter Sellars might reasonably be compared.

Craig Smith has conducted most of Peter Sellars's opera productions, except those at the Chicago Lyric and some of the John Adams operas, with a friendly ensemble of Boston-based musicians. (In 1991, Sellars and Smith created a new opera company of their own, based in Boston.) The "company regulars" among his singers are also Boston based, many of them members of the Emmanuel Church music group of which Craig Smith has been musical director since 1970. If Peter Sellars has never worked with opera conductors, orchestras, or singers of the very highest level (he backed out of a scheduled triple bill at the Metropolitan in


1989, planned for Jessye Norman and Samuel Ramey), he has been exceptionally fortunate in his production team—set designers Adrianne Lobel and George Tsypin, costume designer Dunya Ramicova, and lighting wizard James Ingalls—who have been able to realize, perhaps even to inspire, his most unusual and provocative fantasies.

Strange things happened to the expected actions, characterizations, and settings of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas when they fell into Peter Sellars's hands. His versions of all three take place in the United States (apparently in or around New York) and in the present time. In fact, certain political references in Così fan tutte were updated between the 1987 and 1989 productions to account for the results of the U.S. presidential election of 1988.

The Marriage of Figaro takes place entirely within a modern fifty-two-story apartment building in Manhattan, specifically identified in Sellars's program notes as the Trump Tower. The Count and Countess Almaviva occupy a lavish two-story penthouse apartment, with vast views in two directions, a large imitation Frank Stella painting on the living room wall, and a landscaped terrace on the lower level (onto which Cherubino leaps, destroying a potted poinsettia). Figaro is the Count's chauffeur, and Susanna is the Countess's maid; the Act I chorus is made up of other service personnel from the building, who come in bearing little Christmas gifts for the Count.

Cherubino, who is called "the neighbor's kid" in the program, is a moody modern teenager who wears jeans and gym shoes with his hockey jersey and shoulder pads, and tends to hang around the Almavivas' laundry room (which is to serve as Figaro's and Susanna's bedroom after their marriage). The boy is surprisingly familiar with both Susanna and the Countess. The wealthy, Manhattan-based Count somehow has the power to order Cherubino into the U.S. Army when he grows impatient with the boy's amorous antics.

Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina are dressed as fashionable upper-middle-class New Yorkers. Sellars tells us that Bartolo is now a professor and that Marcellina, the Count's "executive assistant," has started her own small business. The strained bitterness of their onstage deportment is explained by another of the director's program notes, in which he declares that Marcellina and Bartolo have been carrying on a less-than-happy love affair for more than twenty years. Marcellina, suddenly desperate to be married, decides to force the issue with Bartolo by pretending to "cash in" on an old promise of Figaro's: he must either repay her a considerable debt, or marry her himself. (As it turns out, of course, Figaro is Marcellina's and Bartolo's illegitimate son, although all three appear to be about the same age.) She does this, Sellars tells us, in the hope of eliciting the long-awaited proposal of marriage from Bartolo. He is made miserable by her decision, but offers no proposal. In turn, she is made miserable (we are told) by the trap she


now finds herself in, but proceeds with her nasty scheme. As none of these intentions or motivations can be deduced from the libretto, one must intuit them from a combination of the actors' facial and vocal expressions and the director's highly original synopses.

Don Basilio is some sort of devious, greedy pimp or underworld operator, who wears a trendy leather jacket and is identified simply as being "in the music business." It's unclear what his connection is with the Count or, for that matter, with Marcellina and Bartolo, whom he aids in their design to trap Figaro into marriage. Don Curzio, the Count's attorney, carries a cellular phone in his attaché case.

Barbarina is the punkish, pouty, teenaged daughter of the building superintendent. She is in love with Cherubino, but has also (like Susanna) been propositioned by the Count. Figaro, Cherubino, and Susanna all appear to be on terms of casual equality with the Countess. The Countess, depicted as a neurotic, love-starved society woman, very sensually undresses, caresses, tickles, and kisses the nervous Cherubino in Act II and lustily embraces him in Act III. (In the third play of his "Figaro" trilogy—Da Ponte's text is based on the second—Beaumarchais deals with the illegitimate child of the Countess and Cherubino. One could fall back on the French playwright, perhaps, to explain this novel characterization.) When the Count enters her bedroom unexpectedly, he is dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch hunting clothes and carries a rifle, which is a bit puzzling in midtown Manhattan. When his suspicions are aroused, he hurls his wife to the floor, kicks her cruelly, and points a pistol at her head.

For the double wedding, Figaro wheels in a CD player for the march. A crowd of Barbarina's punkish friends dances a sort of erotic, pop-ethnic fandango, choreographed by Mark Morris. Basilio records all the campy carryings-on with a portable video camera. Act IV becomes a decadent indoor/outdoor house party in the manner of Antonioni's La Notte , at which both Figaro and Marcellina threaten to kill themselves by jumping from the terrace. Throughout the opera, the emotions and passions (lust, jealousy, vengeance, depression) of almost everyone involved are screwed up to a frantic and destructive or self-destructive pitch.

Don Giovanni, in Peter Sellars's 1989 version, is a feared and brutal young drug addict/rapist in a run-down New York neighborhood, identified by some critics as Spanish Harlem. He and his greedy sidekick/dependent Leporello were played at Purchase in July–August 1989 by black twin brothers, Eugene and Herbert Perry. They dressed almost identically in jeans, black shirts, and dark leather jackets, which added a metaphysical, doppelgänger quality to their role switch in Act II. Whatever the precise locale, the population is racially mixed—and not simply as a result of what is called "open casting."

Giovanni is, of course, a notorious seducer, with (Sellars tells us) "a preference


for 12- and 13-year-old girls." Donna Anna, a white woman from a higher class and a better part of town, comes to his neighborhood (the whole opera takes place on the same shabby street) for her heroin. She "shoots up" on stage midway in "Non mi dir" (as does Giovanni during "Finch'han del vino"), and appalls Don Ottavio by showing him the needle tracks on her arm. The quattro doppie that Giovanni offers Leporello at the start of Act II are lines of cocaine.

The opera begins with Giovanni's attempted onstage rape of Donna Anna, from which she escapes into an abandoned four-story apartment house that fills the rear of the stage. Her father, a distinguished-looking gentleman in evening dress, happens to arrive on the scene in search of his daughter at that very moment, which is where Giovanni shoots him dead. Anna, "traumatized" by the attempted rape, forces her pathetically confused fiancé Ottavio (a local police officer) to a vow of revenge, repeatedly dipping their hands in her slain father's blood during the repeats of their duet. Ottavio radios for an ambulance, and a team of paramedics carries off the corpse. (Anna's later explanation to her fiancéof what took place is considerably at odds with what we have seen, but Sellars simply tells us that she is lying.)

Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni's 2,065 former conquests, now arrives "from the bus station," a tatty-looking woman in red tights, black boots, a striped miniskirt, and a gold-spangled black jacket. Masetto is a tall local black man given to violence; his new bride Zerlina, in the summer 1989 production, is a fickle young Chinese girl easily tempted by Giovanni. "The palace" Giovanni invites the wedding company to is (we read, although we never see it) a nearby all-night disco. Giovanni's dominion over other members of the cast appears to derive from his reputation as a dangerous criminal entrepreneur, a kind of Mafia padrone offering protezione —two words of the Italian text that come close to fitting the action.

As there is no real palace (Sellars's Giovanni and Leporello appear to live on, and off, the streets), Giovanni gets Masetto drunk (we are told) at a local bar. Provisions for Giovanni's street party come from the looting of a neighborhood grocery by a menacing gang of blacks, which may or may not be under his control. Masetto actually does beat Zerlina (we hear the blows coming from inside their flat) before she sings, "Batti, batti," which makes her seem more a masochistic "codependent" than a clever Mozartean flirt.

Anna, Ottavio, and Elvira emerge from the abandoned apartment house in jazzy party clothes (but unmasked) to join Giovanni's increasingly wild street dance, in the course of which their host strips down to his underwear ("Viva la libertà!"); some of the guests follow his example. After his second rape attempt in the opera (of Zerlina—inside, it would appear, the neon-crossed church where she was just married), he is surrounded by the three "maskers," plus Masetto, who hold guns to his head and threaten to kill him, but do not.


Midway in Act II, a funeral procession comes on stage carrying the coffin of Anna's father, which is dumped in a gas-workers' hole in the road that has been there all along. Later, her dead father walks, red-eyed, onto a platform above the church facade at left—a platform that had earlier held a different, religious statue, until Don Ottavio yanked it down by a convenient rope.

After parleying with the new statue, Giovanni and Leporello share a final feast—milkshake, hamburger, french fries, Chicken McNuggets—on the front steps of the apartment, while Leporello plays his master's musical requests on a giant "boom box," or portable cassette player. Elvira, a suddenly born-again Christian, arrives bearing a Bible and haranguing Giovanni to repent. He throws his french fries at her. Anna's father's "ghost" rises up, green-lit, inside the apartment lobby behind them. Once again Giovanni strips to his pale blue briefs and follows on his knees a prepubescent girl (a symbol of his vilest vice?) who leads him down a glowing manhole in the torn-up street. Suddenly the nude torsos of sixteen chorus members (souls in hell, perhaps) pop out of trapdoors in the floor like jack-in-the-boxes. Next, Giovanni's five adversaries, wearing shroudlike gowns, pop in and out of similar trapdoors to sing a reduced version of the finale, while Leporello, surrounded by four menacing black thugs, slouches on the darkened stage. The apartment house facade flies apart, red lights appear under the trap doors, and an ashcan bursts into flames. End of opera.

In Così fan tutte , Don Alfonso (one learns from Sellars's program notes) is "a Vietnam vet who is having trouble hanging on": alcoholic, embittered, something of a burnt-out case. He has bought his sassy, hard-boiled girlfriend Despina a classic 1930s-style chrome-lined American seaside diner, which they run together and in which most of the action takes place. Theirs is an emotionally exhausting, on-again, off-again relationship, somewhere between Stanley and Stella Kowalski's and Ralph and Alice Kramden's, in which each by turns torments and then makes up to the other. Alfonso's denunciation of women in "Nel mare solca" is violent and deeply personal; Despina's "In uomine, in soldati" and "Una donna a quindice anni" are both sung as the autobiographical accounts of a bitter and brutalized woman.

The relationships among the two other pairs of lovers, who are dressed to suit this contemporary working-class milieu, are not easy to puzzle out in this production, except insofar as all of them seem quite miserable, and grow increasingly disoriented and unhappy as the action progresses. We are told in the program, and to some degree shown on stage, (1) that the two original pairs aren't getting along, and that the men's response to Don Alfonso's challenge is the result of insecure bravado; (2) that the two women are admiring and praising, not their own boyfriends' portraits, but photographs of handsome celebrities in a magazine, and that marriage is the last thing they want; (3) that their violent professions of


affection are really dangerous signs of mental distress; and (4) that they immediately see through the transparent "disguises" of Guglielmo and Ferrando, but eventually decide (while continuing to reject their "own" fiancés) to go along with the dangerous mate-swapping game. Meanwhile, the two men "as Albanians"—costumed and performing exactly like the two klutzy Czech swingers (the "wild and crazy guys") created by Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd on TV's "Saturday Night Live"—grow increasingly pushy and gross, as if their "disguises" allowed them freedoms they would not have otherwise taken. Much of the action throughout the opera seems to be prompted or directed by Don Alfonso and Despina.

Sellars's version of the mock-suicide scene is played mainly for low-comic laughs. The "poison" the men take comes from the diner's plastic catsup and mustard containers. The mesmeric doctor Despina impersonates is modeled on the movie actress Shirley MacLaine, in her recent incarnation as a psychic medium. (In earlier productions, the part was modeled after Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the popular American TV sex counselor.) Dr. Despina wheels in a huge "Die-Hard" brand, German-made battery, which she attaches by jumper cables to the dead men's crotches. Their penises spring to lift independently of the rest of their bodies.

In the second half of the bitter game, Dorabella and Guglielmo do ill fact appear to fall hopelessly in love with each other, while Fiordiligi goes nearly out of her mind trying to reject the advances of her sister's old sweetheart. The men's mutual confessions (of erotic victory and defeat) lead Guglielmo first to drink, then (during "Donne mie") to a frantic, abusive tour through the theatre with a hand microphone, during which he pulls up women from the audience in the manner of a Donahue-like TV talk-show host to denounce the unfaithfulness of all of their sex. The result for Ferrando is an implacable self-disgust and a hatred that continue into the final, profoundly bleak wedding scene (at which the "guests," unaccountably, appear half-asleep in their nightclothes) and the "return" of the undisguised men. Because, as I say, the disguises never fooled anyone on stage for a moment, it is sometimes difficult to know what to make of the hysterical outbursts and distraught behavior of everyone concerned.

In the past twenty or thirty years, there have been hundreds of productions of standard repertory operas, from Monteverdi through Puccini, set in times and places other than those indicated in the texts or favored by their original creators. In addition to the abstract, symbolist, or otherworldly settings frequently used for Wagner, opera seria, and other legendary or expressionist operas (The Magic Flute, Pélleas et Mélisande, Elektra,  Jenufa[*] , Lulu), we have had La forza del destino set during the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Don Pasquales , Norma singing "Casta diva" from the turret of a tank (or as a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust), Rigoletto as a bartender in 1950s New York, Carmen as a modern guerrilla, Aida pushing a mop, Madame Butterfly living through World War II in Nagasaki (and killing herself just as the


atom bomb explodes), Gluck's leather-jacketed Orfeo losing his Euridice in a car crash, and a Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in which the war Ulysses is returning from is the war in Vietnam. A favorite device is to stage an old opera not in the era in which the author intended it, but in the year in which it was first produced: hence all the 1876 Wagner Rings , and Strauss operas set in the 1910s and 1920s. The French Riviera (for comedies) and the Fascist dictatorships (for tragedies) have been especially popular for such updatings, in which producers often use the earlier work to "make a statement" about the modern world. Confined mainly to German opera houses in the 1960s and early 1970s, such productions are now as likely to turn up at Cardiff or Long Beach as Kassel.

Peter Sellars insists he has no patience with such restagings. "I hate updatings as a gambit," he says. "I resent it actively—it's cheap and vulgar and obnoxious and not to the point. My productions are never updated." Instead, he declares, he is juxtaposing cultures, setting up a "visual counterpoint" to the music to stimulate the greatest possible intensity and range of response. To recreate the novelty and shock of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas at their première performances, without obliging either modern actors or modern audiences to imagine their way into another century, he recasts them in the "image language" or "systems of reference" of the contemporary United States. In this way, he insists, he is trying not to update great works of the past, but to "test the present against them," not to make some specific comment about U.S. society today, but to get at the heart and core of the work: the characters' emotional plights as revealed in the score. Powdered wigs and satin breeches, sabers and candelabra and rococo garden sets are all, he believes, inessential trappings that get in the way of Mozart's essential meanings and drama. "I believe very strongly," he was quoted as saying while still at Harvard, "that the point of the theater is to make people notice the present. Most people go to the theater to escape the present."

Critics favorably disposed to Sellars's versions of Mozart admit to being unhappy with some of his grosser inconsistencies, and with his dark and narrow visions of the Mozart-Da Ponte worlds. But they have little or no trouble with his contemporary American restagings, which they regard (I am paraphrasing) as viable starting points for explorations of the emotional life of these operas in overtly modern terms. They praise the operas' cultural immediacy and passionate vitality. In general, his defenders argue, every movement in these operas, every gesture, every invention, every response, springs directly from the score, which Sellars and his conductor-partner Craig Smith have obviously studied very closely. Above all, they praise the theatricalism, the high-spirited intensity, and the ensemble finesse. However many faults they may find in his rewritings and interpretations, they insist—comparing his productions with international-style Mozart, for which well-known singers are flown into traditional stagings—on Sellars's


greater theatrical brilliance and power to seize. Like the operas or not, the Sellars advocates insist, you will find them "stimulating," "engrossing," "gripping," "vibrant," "immediate," "shocking," "vivid," and "wildly imaginative."

Sellars's own explications and defenses of his stagings of the Mozart operas appear in the casual, quirky, and apparently unedited introductions to and plot summaries of each opera he has written, which are distributed to audiences at productions. (The summaries are of Sellars 's operas, rather than the simpler, earlier versions of Mozart and Da Ponte.)

In a recent interview for American Theatre , Sellars belittles the theoretical writings of Bertolt Brecht (whose plays and poems he greatly admires). "I should know, I put out a fair amount of that stuff—you know, stuff that's designed to annoy people or provoke." He was referring, I suspect, to things like his program notes for the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, which are clearly designed to be "outrageous." Because these operas were presented in contemporary sets and costumes during the 1780s and 1790s, he insists, they should be presented in contemporary sets and costumes today. Because they were full of notoriously topical references for eighteenth-century audiences, they should be full of modern topical references today. He cites the U.S. drug traffic (for Don Giovanni ) and the Leona Helmsley trial (for The Marriage of Figaro ) to prove that "the oppressive class structure that Mozart depicted is alive and well 200 years later in The United States of America." He refers to an unusually promiscuous AIDS patient to demonstrate that the totals in Leporello's catalogue are more realistic than fantastic. "The Count has a severe Ed Meese-type memory lapse" regarding his sexual overtures to Barbarina. "Bush has decided to invade Panama" is his explanation for Ferrando's and Guglielmo's being recalled to active duty.

It is in these program notes that we first learn of the unusual motivations and relationships Sellars has decided to attribute to Marcellina and Bartolo, Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, Don Alfonso and Despina, the four lovers of Così fan tutte; of Don Giovanni's pedophilia, Donna Anna's drug addiction, and Ottavio's antifeminist disgust with his rape-victim fiancée. It is here we learn that Ferrando in Così is "the composer's own tortured self-portrait"—a way of reading Mozart's music I thought had been discredited some years ago. Sellars imposes new moralistic readings, or patches over inconsistencies (like the unmasked maskers), simply by adding a few lines to these notes. In them, he alternates slangy gags and winking asides with paragraphs of philosophizing. Here is his gloss on the difficult-to-stage ensemble that concludes "Che impensata novità!" (What an unexpected development!: the line has to be repeated twenty-one times by five people through sixty-one bars) in Act II, Scene 8 of Don Giovanni . The disguised Leporello has just revealed his true identity in order to escape being killed by Giovanni's enemies.


In the terrifying presumption of appointing themselves instruments of God's divine wrath, they have omitted to consider the unknowability of the world and the frailty of human certainty. And they have failed to reckon with God, who is certainly working in mysterious ways. A thousand murky thoughts course through everyone's head as they pass through their own personal dry run for the Last Judgement, suddenly forced to examine their own motives as their attempt to cast the first stone is thwarted. In the whirlwind of high anxiety and private doubt each character is confronted by an intimation that there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed. "Che impensata novita" what unexpected news the characters keep repeating. After a while those words are transfigured into a meditation on the un-thought-of New Life.

As a writer, rather than a theatre professional, I admit to being almost as put off by these turgid, pushy, and ill-written exercises in specious self-defense (which many critics quote uncritically, as if they did indeed justify what is happening on stage) as I am by the excesses of the productions themselves. But perhaps the author intends them to elicit precisely my reaction.

In his notes for Don Giovanni , Peter Sellars writes, "To those who object to the absence or alteration of certain details of the setting, I would rather like to say, with the spirit of the Commendatore, 'Non si pasce di cibo mortale chi si pasce di cibo celeste; altri cure, piu gravi di queste, altra brama quaggiu mi guido [He who has fed on the bread of heaven has no need of earthly bread; I am guided by a greater purpose, a different mission than this].' " In the handout, Sellars leaves this quotation untranslated, perhaps hoping that "those who object" will pass over the celestial arrogance of his response.

To people who have wondered why productions so visibly modern and American are sung in Italian, Sellars has replied that none of the available English translations is good enough. One may well agree, but the response appears disingenuous. Were his singers to perform in the language of the audience (or with accurate supertitles), non-Italian speakers would very quickly realize that a great deal of Sellars's stage action is utterly at odds with Da Ponte's texts. People are often saying things that make no sense.

Andrew Porter, since 1984 one of Sellars's most ardent advocates among American music critics, defends this textual nonsense on the rather tired argument that all opera is antinaturalistic (real people don't converse in song, with an orchestra present, etc.), and that Sellars's stagings are just more patently antirealistic than most others: why not tolerate one layer of nonsense more? ("Among so many conventions, it is easy to accept another: that an eighteenth century text is being sung, in Italian, to eighteenth century music, in a modern New York setting.") He finds the discordance between the words Sellars's actors are singing and the things


they are doing to be "undisturbing, even piquant," and he mocks the "literal-minded" who object.

And yet Porter has also written, "Sellars pays keenest attention. to what the characters say and sing." One's response to this issue may depend on how well one knows the original text (or can understand sung Italian); and on just how much nonsense (or "antinaturalist convention") one is prepared to tolerate, even in opera.

That Sellars ignores many of Da Ponte's cast descriptions and stage directions and substitutes his own bothers me not at all, as long as the music and sung text do not demand the original versions. Characterizations and stage directions in the theatre range from the minimal (Greek tragedy, Shakespeare) to the maximal (Shaw, O'Neill), and directors have long felt free to improvise their own. In Così fan tutte , for example, we "should" be, by turns, in a garden overlooking the Bay of Naples, the ladies' boudoir, a garden at the seashore with grass seats and two small tables, a room in the sisters' house, and a large richly bedecked room with a table set for four. Instead, we spend the whole opera in and outside of a streamlined American diner, or in artificial garden flats along the side walls of the theatre. Boats are supposed to arrive on stage to carry the two men off to war, or to bear on singers and musicians. Instead, Alfonso plays with a model warship behind the counter that is "bombarded" by toy planes; the chorus is made up of townspeople protesting current U.S. political acts. Instead of drawing their swords, the men pick up table knives; instead of poison vials, they drink from condiment jars. The "well-bred ladies," who obviously aren't, and their equally lowbrow swains refer to hydras, basilisks, phoenixes, Penelope, Artemisia, Cupid, Venus, Mars, the Eumenides, Cythera, Jove, Mercury, Pallas, Narcissus, and Charon—an example, perhaps, of the "cultural juxtaposition" that Sellars and Porter find so piquant.

Locations in classic opera (like Shakespeare's "seacoast of Bohemia") are often little more than conventions—although some aspects of Italy and Spain are written into Mozart's music. I can accept Dorabella lamenting, from somewhere in Westchester County, that her lover has "left Naples"; references to nearby Burgos in a New York-set Don Giovanni; and references to nearby Seville in a New York-set Figaro . Innovative and still credible productions of Shakespeare plays have accustomed us to kings, counts, and emperors, who are visibly not kings, counts, or emperors but rather their latter-day counterparts as heads of state or men of power. I balk at "royal edicts" cited in modern American settings (and have never grown completely comfortable with a Harlem crook being addressed as cavaliere or sua eccelenza ). But in the end I concede that, if Donald Trump's tower can be owned by a count, then New York can have a king.

The trappings, rituals, and attitudes of a genuine aristocracy, however, the elaborately class-structured society on which so much of Mozart's and Da Ponte's


MOZART Così fan tutte , Susan Larson (left) and Janice Felty, PepsiCo Summerfare, 1989.
Photograph by Peter Krupenye.

dramas depend, can seem ludicrous in modern-day American settings. Don Giovanni's seduction of Zerlina hinges on his insisting (and her credulously accepting) that the morals of noblemen like him have been slandered by plebeians like her. But look at the two people who are singing the lines! Don Ottavio, an undercover cop, has trouble believing that a "fellow aristocrat" like Giovanni (visibly a drug addict and a criminal) could possibly have dishonored a woman. Don Giovanni has no palazzo; a New York penthouse is not a castello . Although the Count refers to Figaro as his vassal, and Cherubino as his page, it is inconceivable that a New York socialite could order a neighbor's son off to war. All the lines and verses about the Count's having (it is hoped) abolished the droit de seigneur (itself a fabrication of Beaumarchais, according to Daniel Heartz) make no sense. Quite apart from the more serious inconsistencies in the character of Marcellina as conceived by Peter


Sellars, it is a little silly to hear her addressed by Susanna as "la dama d'onore, di Spagna l'amore."

Peter Sellars's Don Giovanni traduces dozens of individual lines, from the condemned man's feast—Giovanni and Leporello sing of their pheasant and fine wine while eating Big Macs and sipping milkshakes through a straw—to Leporello's "fat little book" (in fact, a porno slide show) of all the noblewomen and commoners his young New York padrone had somehow seduced throughout Europe. Giovanni orders Leporello to show his guests through the garden, the gallery, the apartments, and the ballroom of his palace, to offer them chocolate and coffee, wine and prosciutto; instead, they mill about a dirty street and drink stolen beer.

When I arrived home from Purchase in the summer of 1989, suffering under the pressure of these conceptual muddles, one of the first things I did was to reread the librettos and note every line in these operas that had belied its own visible incarnation. These varied from the trivial (seven references to Seville in Figaro , the costumes supposedly worn by Cherubino and Leporello, smashed poinsettias instead of carnations in Don Giovanni ), through the annoyingly nonsensical (any number of objects referred to that simply weren't there: trees, muskets, swords, masks, torches, cloaks, chocolate and sorbet, a casino, a night cap, arsenic, mustachios, poor peasant girls), to the dramatically substantial.

Peter Sellars's claim that he is simply trying to juxtapose alien cultural imagery in the hope of provoking new ideas is all very well. But what are the members of a chorus impersonating modern American employees supposed to think or mean, and what are we supposed to think as we listen to them, when they sing the praises of their employer for not claiming his medieval "right" to deflower any bride-to-be in his employ? For all the garbage Figaro overturns and the fresh eggs he hurls against the wall, his "Non più andrai," addressed to this particular Cherubino, simply makes no sense. Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio wear no masks at Giovanni's street party. Sellars explains this away casually in his notes. But Giovanni has lines that indicate shock and surprise when he "recognizes" the three later, after they "unmask." Giovanni serenades an empty window; the Elvira represented here obviously has no maidservant.

In Così , at a time when Despina and Alfonso are on stage together in their diner, he supposedly "knocks at her door," and she asks, "Who's there?" Despina is called a chambermaid, and the two sisters her employers, which they visibly are not. While Dorabella and Fiordiligi are loudly proclaiming their outraged refusal to grant their Albanian suitors a kiss, the four of them are writhing in sensual couplings all over the floor.

Does none of this matter? I think it does. I cannot conceive of serious singing actors, attempting to incarnate created characters, so frequently having to say things that belie the very characters they are playing, and the world they are


pretending to inhabit. What fruitful frisson an audience is to receive from this nonsense-making "juxtaposition of cultures" I cannot imagine. What it frequently produced at Purchase were giggles and guffaws.

Acting "against the text"—and, in the case of opera, against the music—is another matter, and clearly one in which a director's creative liberty may prevail. It is one thing (and an awkward thing) for an actor to refer to his sword and then pull out his gun; it is quite another for a woman to profess her hatred for a man she secretly loves. All three of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas are full of scenes of conscious and semiconscious deceit, self-deception, uncertain motives, and the like. There is no reason a director may not, within a coherent scheme (which need not be naturalistic), discover others still.

I cannot bring myself to accept Peter Sellars's novel readings of Marcellina and Donna Anna. But I grant that they can be made to fit the text and score by the application of a little pressure to the way in which lines are acted and notes are sung. A Marcellina who breaks into frustrated tears at the end of her Act I duet with Susanna (a duet I always thought was meant to be funny), a Donna Anna whose coloratura outburst at the end of "Non mi dir" is explained as the result of a heroin injection are possible, perhaps, but they are certainly strained directorial conceits.

Others of Sellars's original interpretations of characters (and, hence, of their music) are more persuasive—occasionally, in fact, quite moving—enlargements of the roles. The wrenching moral confusion of his Don Ottavio—totally uncertain whether to trust his demented fiancée—yields a perversely twisted reading of "Dalla sua pace," ugly but honest, operatic but sordid, in which the lyric line is totally ravaged. Evil as the whole idea seems, and utterly at odds with the music, it does provide a real "action" for what is usually a mere tenor showpiece. The heavily erotic, beautifully choreographed undressing (rather than dressing) of Cherubino by Susanna and the Countess is breathtaking in the way in which it seems to grow entirely out of the three spiring and intertwining vocal lines. Sellars's sublime staging of "Dove sono," with the Countess posed on a mezzanine balcony against a giant picture window—at times clutching at the glass, her back to us, as a magenta-orange sunset fades over Manhattan—is one of the unforgettable sound-and-sight moments of opera. Almost everything that Don Alfonso and Despina sing in the presence of each other takes a new and poignant depth from Sellars's conception of them as battle-scarred lovers—most notably, their "school for lovers" mime, where the two of them teach their inept charges how to make love, how to woo and be wooed. Two different plays are going on at once: their "act" for the confused young lovers, and the much darker, more deadly serious act they are playing for each other. "Una donna a quindici anni" is sung to a cruel, mimed restaging of their entire relationship. One may never have expected to hear


Despina singing "Viva Despina che sa servir" while cringing, shaking, and near to tears—singing the words, in effect, against the obvious line of music and text; but given the character Sellars has developed, this makes fine and pathetic sense.

Singing, acting, and moving against the music—or at least against the apparent emotional direction of music and text—can be a dangerous game for a director to play. One memorably jarring, and in the end half-convincing example is Fiordiligi's "Come scoglio," in which she goes off her head in the course of the song—proving that she is anything but "like a rock"—and ends up collapsed on the floor, tickled by the others, which encourages us to envision her greater collapse to come. Sellars, who has expressed his disdain for traditional, beautiful showcase arias (and who rarely works with singers who could do them total justice in any case), often seems eager to contradict or "de-beautify" such arias by having the singers spit out their words in a spitefully ironic fashion; by forcing them through weird and wild movements during their songs; or simply by following their final notes immediately by some jarring new action (Despina drops a pile of dishes just as "Soave sia il vento" whispers to its close)—which, of course, also inhibits applause.

This kind of criticism may seem unfair to a producer who has, one often reads, the most impeccable respect for Mozart's scores. Peter Sellars and Craig Smith have been at once generous and careful about appoggiaturas, vocal embellishments, the music of recitatives, and the overall integrity of the published scores. But a number of their decisions may lead one to question the quality and depth of that respect.

Adding, subtracting, and moving numbers (even whole scenes) in the Mozart-Da Ponte operas was standard practice even before Mozart's death in 1791. Of itself, this is certainly no sign of disrespect. One is always curious, however, about why a producer or conductor makes such decisions. One of the more unusual Sellars/Smith choices is to replace Dorabella's lovely "È amore un ladroncello" (Love is a little thief) in Act II, Scene 10 of Così with the troubled "Vado, ma dove?" (I go, but where am I going?)—an aria Mozart composed for a completely different opera.[2] Sellars does this, I presume, because the sentiments and music of "È amore" are too frivolous for his conception of Dorabella's near-psychotic mental state at this point, while "Vado, ma dove?" fits it very neatly. He also imports a tender musical interlude (an arrangement for fortepiano from the first movement of Mozart's G-major piano concerto, K. 453) to accompany Guglielmo's and Dorabella's stroll in the garden before their duet.

In The Marriage of Figaro , the adagio from the E-flat Serenade for Winds (K. 375)


is performed to close up the gap between Acts I and II, where it also serves as a prelude to the Countess's sad and self-pitying "Porgi, amor." The usually cut final-act arias for Marcellina and Basilio are retained. Both are interpreted in the harrowing, neurotic style that dominates Sellars's version of this opera. Sellars characterizes Basilio's "In quegli anni" as "an aria of unbearable self-loathing." The second half of Marcellina's "Il capro e la capretta" is turned into a violent feminist outburst, which ends with her contemplating suicide.

In Don Giovanni , Sellars restores the awkward and disagreeable Scene 10b of Act II, which is rarely performed in the theatre. (In thirty years of Giovannis , I had never before seen it staged.) In this scene, which Sellars calls "wonderfully comic," Zerlina traps Leporello, ties him to a chair, and whirls about a great kitchen cleaver with which she threatens to cut off various parts of his body.

Even more interestingly, Sellars decided to cut the sixty-one bars of "reconciliation" music and text for the puzzled survivors that follow Don Giovanni's damnation. "We are making this cut," he writes in his notes, "because we feel it reflects a much more accurate picture of Mozart's last thought on the subject and shows greater insight in the inability of these characters to find easy solutions to their situations." In this opinion, Sellars is rejecting the judgment of virtually all twentieth-century Mozart scholars.[3] The "insight" shown in cutting the next-to-last lines of the opera is really more Peter Sellars's than Mozart's and, like most of the producer's textual decisions, seems intended to strengthen, even to force, an unrelievedly dark interpretation.

In Mozart , Wolfgang Hildesheimer writes:

It is highly debatable whether Mozart "approved" the cut of this scene m the Vienna production, or whether he was accommodating some wish from above or below. It would not have been the only time. Wolfgang Plath and Wolfgang Rehm, the editors of Don Giovanni in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe , write, "Strictly speaking, there is only one version of Don Giovanni which has an absolute claim to authenticity; that is the opera as it was composed for Prague and performed there on October 29, 1787, with unparalleled success. Likewise, this is the only version which can be called definitive. The so-called Viennese Version, after all we can conclude from the source material unearthed, is anything but clear; rather it is by nature variable, experimental, open-ended." Right Strictly speaking, thc Viennese adaptation is no version at all but something produced ad hoc to which Mozart had to accommodate himself.


Two other aspects of Sellars's productions may be troubling to viewers who believe (as I do) that most of the potentially deepest meanings of these operas are conveyed by Mozart's vocal lines. The first is a maddening tendency to stop all music and action dead for ten, fifteen, even twenty seconds, in order to achieve what I presume are meant to be "meaningful" dramatic pauses. These occur just before (or after) a character's unexpected arrival; before lines or verses the director wants to underline (e.g., the last chorus of "Se vuol ballare"); or whenever the director wants to leave time for deep thoughts or comic doubletakes. Figaro 's "Sua madre" ensemble is riddled with these vaudevillian holes. There are more than a dozen major breaks in The Marriage of Figaro alone, including a barbarously long pause between the andante and allegro of "Dove sono." An equally long and musically disruptive pause separates the final repeat of Ferrando's "Un'aura amorosa" from the rest of the song. Sellars seems unwilling to trust an audience to get Mozart's musical points, just as he seems unwilling to trust Mozart's music to convey the composer's dramatic intentions, without his own heavy-handed and melodramatic punctuation.

A second antimusical innovation involves the poses and postures in which Sellars's actors have to sing. In all three operas, magnificent arias are sung by people facing away from us, pressing their heads against a wall, lying on their stomachs or their backs, falling repeatedly to the floor, writhing on their spines, fighting, making love, crawling, or rolling over and over. The stage pictures that result may be powerful, handsome, and apt. But there goes the music. For the singer, accuracy and purity of tone are bound to be lost. For the listener, whole notes are muffled, or disappear completely. Cherubino lies prone on Figaro's and Susanna's sofa bed while singing "Non so più," humping the mattress as if masturbating ("Ogni donna mi fa palpitar"). The action is as tawdry as a scene from any horny-teenager movie; more seriously, it kills the music. The point and poignancy of "Non so più" lie wholly in its vocal line. By forcing the singer into this ludicrous mime, the vocal line is shot.

Sellars has frequently been praised for another kind of movement-to-music: his unique and intricate weaving of many stage traditions into an antinaturalistic and musically expressive choreography for his singers to use during their arias and (especially) ensembles. "Deeds of music made visible," Andrew Porter has called these movements, adopting Wagner's description of his own theatrical ideal. For these I have nothing but admiration. Sellars has devised apt, expressive, and "musiclike" movements, which his actor-singers (become dancers) enact with consummate skill.

The great Act II finale of Figaro is transformed into a sung dance of four against three, in which each member of each team moves hands and feet to the line of his or her own music. "Sua madre / suo padre" is set to a similarly clever dance of good guys versus bad guys. After the first, "acted" line of the Act III Letter Duet,


Susanna and the Countess begin twirling about slowly like ancient Chinese dancers, turning as if on ice skates (each move a visual counterpart of their sung notes). They fall softly to their knees, then to the floor, roll over, kneel up, roll back, shaping with their paired, bent bodies the suave and subtle music of this most tender of duets.

When Donna Elvira is declaiming against Don Giovanni, he is insisting she is mad ("La povera ragazza è pazza"), and Ottavio and Anna are wondering which of the two to believe, the director has the three others wall Elvira in by walking around her in a tight triangle, each singing a line as he or she steps to stage front. The minuet of the three conspirators is performed as a nearly static step-side, step-back dance, the offbeats accented with finger snaps.

Così fan tutte is almost "through-choreographed," perhaps because Sellars and company have been working on it so long and so consistently. Whole numbers are mimed by hands waving like swimming fish, twisting and clutching in pairs, rising high for individual high notes, shaking wildly on insecure trills. The more emotional arias and ensembles are sung by people dropping to their knees, writhing on their backs, or rolling in gentle waves on the floor. Erotic duets are sung by couples kneeling front to front, then back to back, moving in slow mirror images, cringing, crawling, grasping, their locked hands dancing separately from their bodies. The "Albanians" dance a kind of twitching comic soft-shoe, with their index fingers lifted. Despina and Don Alfonso tango as they sing, with the intimate violence of experienced sexual partners. To military music, the two officers move sharply (first one, then the other) right, left, about, hands up, hands out. Their girlfriends join them, twirling and singing to their eighth notes, while the men move and sing to their quarter notes, each following a separate line of music. In actual fact , they make the music visible. At one chilling moment in the Act 1 farewell, the "wrong" couple crosses from their hand-holding circle dance. Passing a bit too closely, they exchange a dangerous glance, like a moment from José Limon's Othello -based ballet, The Moor's Pavane . Both finales are shaped into six-person chorus lines out of which individual members keep breaking, fighting, rejoining, dancing, grabbing, quitting, whirling, until at the end everyone is spinning separately, a once-ordered cosmos in which every planet has turned selfish and mad.

This sort of thing is worth diamonds. Of itself it would justify seeing the opera, buying the videocassette. But it comes at a price. First, you are never going to persuade an Elizabeth Schwarzkopf or a Margaret Price to master and undergo these contortions. The Sellars/Smith company of singers is more than adequate vocally. Some are at times quite good. But none is able to achieve the expressive vocal power of at least a dozen other Mozart singers I have heard in these roles. And much of their own singing, however good or bad it might be, obviously has to be less clear and effective because of all this bending and twirling.


Peter Sellars could never have achieved such complex patterns of integrated movement except by means of a coherent and disciplined troupe of "resident" performers, willing and able to rehearse for long periods of time. To obtain the semi-gymnastic spectacle he desired (expression through gesture), some degree of vocal quality and projection (expression through words and music) had to be sacrificed.

Critics have made precisely the same observation about certain operas produced by Giorgio Strehler and Walter Felsenstein. You may not always get the greatest vocal performances in their productions. You may sacrifice something of musical expression. But the total integrated spectacle gives you so much more good theatre, they declare, that the sacrifice is worth it. The work of all three producers can be traced back to the theatricalist ideals of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Peter Sellars's distant Russian master. Neither prima la musica nor prima le parole; but in the beginning was the gesture. "What the audience sees is more important, I would venture to say, than what it hears, because we think in images" (Peter Sellars, 1980).

Peter Sellars has looked deeply into the Mozart-Da Ponte scores and librettos (and, I presume, deeply into himself and the world he inhabits) and found dark and ugly things. He has found men who beat and brutalize women, women possessed by lust for men who are not "theirs," couples involved in selfish, poisonous, mutually destructive relationships. These he has realized by onstage scenes of sex and violence so explicit that the reconciliation scenes that inevitably follow in Mozart (scenes that are virtually dictated by the "recapitulation" sequences of late-eighteenth-century sonata-form progressions) become virtually impossible to credit—which may be part of Sellars's plan.

When sex is "serious," it is presented in near-pornographic images: the Count shoving his hand under Susanna's short skirt, his head under her apron, as she stands backed up against a wall; Leporello's slide show of Giovanni's conquests, sleazy Hustler magazine-type shots of naked women whose eyes are blacked over; the nymphet who leads Giovanni, stripped and groveling, to his doom; Despina forcing Don Alfonso to crawl, while she rides him like a horse. Fiordiligi, Don Giovanni, and Cherubino all perform whole scenes in their underwear. When sex is "comic" in Sellars's operas, it is little more than a series of sophomoric crotch jokes.

Almaviva throws his wife to the floor and kicks her, holds a gun to her head. Ottavio hurls, drags, slams, and shoves Donna Anna about. Masetto does beat Zerlina. Ferrando and Guglielmo, when they pretend to discover their fiancées' false marriage contract, shove them to the floor and start choking them.

In each opera, someone reaches a point of such manic frustration that he or she simply has to toss things around, smashing eggs or cans or bottles all over the set. Silent characters in black lurk menacingly about. All of these qualities are incarnated in the set and background action of Don Giovanni: a street cracked apart by a deep hole in which cocaine addicts snort and bodies are dumped; bloody hands


held up in the shadows; undressed people twitching and crawling, as a garbage can bursts into flame.

Peter Sellars claims, correctly, that most of the dangerous emotions he depicts can be traced to the original texts. All three operas are far more about real sex than most people pretend. In the two more serious works sexual politics and class warfare are combined. Parts of Don Giovanni are harsh, cruel, and full of hate. Almaviva is a wildly jealous, proud, lust-driven, vengeful man. No dramma giocoso based in large part on a strong man's supposed right to have sex with any woman under his power—as both Figaro and Giovanni are—can be taken simply as a sunny good joke. The Marriage of Figaro is the opera of the double standard par excellence: the Count can seduce every woman in reach, and continue to expect his wife to forgive him; if she so much as compromises herself by appearances, she could be dismissed or even worse. Each opera is studded with antimale and antifemale arias, attacks on the cruelty of the one and the infidelity of the other.

All of this is there in the texts. Peter Sellars has simply taken it more seriously than anyone before him. He has also taken seriously each threat in the librettos to kill someone else or oneself. When Don Ottavio sings again and again, "Morte mi da," he shoves a pistol in his mouth. (The use of diner cutlery as a weapon attenuates the seriousness of these threats in Così .)

One could counter by insisting that most of this "dangerous" content is simply part of a convention in classical comedy—lustful men, fickle women, illicit amorous intrigues, and deceived spouses are as much a part of ancient stage tradition as empty rhetorical threats to kill or commit suicide—and that Peter Sellars is wrong to take all these things so modernly/seriously, as if they were aspects of some sordid contemporary "case" involving adultery, wife beating, and rape. A great deal of recent scholarship on Mozart has devoted itself to demonstrating the degree to which he and Da Ponte were simply trying to follow contemporary and popular Viennese conventions in their intrigues. Da Ponte wrote, then Mozart wrote music for, plots that they both hoped would sell.

Something of the inherited tradition, like the long-lost-parents discovery scene, is irreducibly present in these operas, and can never be dissolved in any modern directorial acid solution. (Of course, the damnation-to-hell of Don Giovanni is an inherited convention as well, which Mozart "believed" in no more than did Molière.) But Mozart did raise the moral and emotional intensity of these situations far beyond that of his time or, for that matter, of a generation later (cf. Rossini). His (and Da Ponte's) more bitter antifemale and antimale outbursts go well beyond the requirements of "tradition." For all the semifarcical, half-inherited nature of their plots, Mozart and Da Ponte were in fact breaking away from the tradition. Mozart, at least, took a great number of these human passions quite seriously indeed.

Even if such things were "mere conventions" in the eighteenth century, is Peter Sellars wrong to insist that we cannot accept them so comfortably today? If he can


in fact "make them play" as dire and dangerous for a contemporary audience, is he not justified in doing so?

The problem, as I see it, is that he can do that only by ignoring many of the clear and explicit meanings of the score. Almost all of Sellars's justifications for his new readings are drawn from Da Ponte's librettos, or from speculations on Mozart's ideas—not from Mozart's music. What Mozart's role was in proposing, crafting, or editing these librettos we shall never know. But he did write all the music. And the music says things very different from what Sellars is reading in the text, and depicting on the stage.

These are, in the end, three very different operas, with very differing degrees of "darkness." But taken all in all, most of their music is positive, even joyful; most of their scenes are either comic or humane. There is in the music of all three—even Don Giovanni —an all-integrating balance (or at least a willing embrace of disparates), a cohering power that Sellars lacks. Mozart's scores say much more than do Da Ponte's texts—or Peter Sellars's antimusical redactions of them. As many attentive students of these operas have pointed out, it is Mozart's music, far more than the words of his librettist, that makes clear the implicit "values, social situations, and general ideas," to quote Sandra Corse, that provide the intellectual content and examine the moral meanings. In the end, I can only conclude that the producer didn't understand, and hence didn't trust, the power of Mozart's music.

My most common response as a spectator to the Mozart-Da Ponte productions at Purchase was that I was listening (or trying to listen) to music that drove in one direction, wphile watching a stage spectacle that drove in the other. All too often, I felt the music was denying the sense of what was happening on stage.

The scores, whether read on the printed page or heard carried through the air, along with two hundred years of production history, indicate that to strip away most of the comedy, politesse, and reconciliation from these operas, revealing almost everyone in them as ravaged or monstrous, as grossly "real," is in fact to resist or ignore not only Mozart's genuine historical context, but also his hard-won, sometimes barely achieved musical balance. He clearly delighted in broadly mixed, all-embracing genres; in breaking down altogether the walls between farce, laughing comedy, sentimental comedy, and tragedy. He relished the challenge of containing them all in resolved musical structures that demonstrate the moral and emotional complexity of human beings. Ignore or deny the positive, redemptive attitudes so tightly woven into the texts and scores of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas—as Peter Sellars has done—and you will end up by shrinking them painfully, turning them into something much smaller than they are.



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