Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Mind-altering Mozart


Peter Sellars' famous stagings of three operas now out on DVD

Director Peter Sellars.
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Even by the last Mozart Year, the 1991 "celebration" of the 200th death anniversary, updated productions of Mozart operas were still a relative rarity in the US. In Europe, they already were in the late stages of potty-training and submitted to all manner of S&M ritual with the requisite shame and relish. This side of the Atlantic, however, the well-oiled machines of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's polemical, clergy-bashing, one-set-fits-all productions were about as radical as things got.

Then along came Peter Sellars. The first DVD releases of his mind-altering productions of the three operas Mozart composed to Lorenzo da Ponte librettos — Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and Le Nozze di Figaro — make a welcome return to the catalog (Decca), where their only previous appearance, on VHS, was short. Before being exported to Vienna for taping, these hugely daring, infinitely caring, true-to-life, humanly-scaled productions changed my understanding of Mozart, Mozart opera, opera, and, in important ways, life.

For them alone (and a Wagner Tannhauser in Chicago that may be the single best opera production in my experience) I can overlook Sellars' less fruitful association with John Adams that created the stink-bomb of Dr. Atomic and still promises more to come. With the possible exception of the Figaro (which even Sellars concurred he never got quite right), the trilogy struck home by assuming (but not taking for granted) that these were the greatest operas in the genre, but then not being intimidated by them, and insisting on taking them dead seriously. Clichés fell away like bad fresco, and real characters in situations audience members identified with (no matter how hard they sometimes tried not to) emerged. Whatever comedy was lost along the way seemed in retrospect like tired sight-gags dispatched to their long-earned rest.

Whatever sense Sellars intended by moving Figaro to Trump Tower, the transposition locked it in both time and place. Despite how far the characters ventured from their prototypes, they were stuck in his concept like dandies in aspic. The show never quite broke free of its music-box feel. Of the three, it alone is the "CNN Opera" Sellars' detractors dismissed them all as.

But setting Cosi in Despina's Diner, a small-town eatery where a frighteningly real Vietnam vet (Sanford Sylvan as Don Alfonso) takes Mozart's couples through the funhouse of sexual desire, coupling, and their consciousness-shattering consequences was a stroke of genius. At Despina's Diner, a lot of people have to eat their words.

Relocating Don Giovanni to a New York slum (

which changed over years of revisions from Spanish Harlem to Brooklyn to an unspecified hell in front of La Famosa Grocery, off in the boroughs) and turning the title character into a heroin- and sex-and-love-addict in no way diminished what Sellars himself called "probably the greatest opera ever written." Instead, it brought it to such literal grab-you-by-the-throat, gritty "real life" that it marked the first time I ever really "got" the piece.

Hunk alert

By the time it was ready for prime time (the films aired on PBS' Great Performances), the Don Giovanni had grown from an interesting idea with a hole in the middle (Kurt Ollman, Sellars' first Giovanni, was rendered so passive by his heroin addiction that he was functionally defanged and to some extent sexually dysfunctional) to a relentless, unflinching exploration of what Sellars called "the upper class' need to rape the lower classes." Particularly with Lorraine Hunt's Elvira and two satanically handsome, leather-clad black baritones playing Giovanni and Leporello (real-life identical twins Eugene and Herbert Perry), all vestiges of comic shtick were banished from the set. Sellars' unblinking focus on actions having consequences makes the two hellish act finales harrowingly memorable. The exceptionally hunky and apparently well-endowed Eugene performing the first in skimpy white briefs also helps.

The one that changed the least and had least need of it was Sellars' pitch-perfect Cosi. Although he was hardly the first director to take the two couples seriously, he exposed their ever-changing emotions and allegiances with such naked candor that the impulse to look away is often strong. A dating-service ad this Cosi is not.

The DVDs give you Sellars' wonderfully vernacular subtitles and, better than in the house, close-ups including the stylized movements drawn from other theater traditions that he made so uniquely his own. When these productions debuted at the PepsiCo Summerfare, Craig Smith and his Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra were funkier than the Vienna Symphony here, but somehow a better fit.

When all the Mozart operas are performed this Mozart Year (and these, many times over), they'll still have Sellars' to look up to.

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