Stellar Handel

Orlando Directed by Peter Sellars '80; conducted by Craig Smith At the Loeb Drama Center

ORLANDO BELONGS--with Ajax and Avalon--to a curious breed of proper nouns whose senses have passed over the centuries from the epic to the cheap and commercial. Once the name was instantly recognizable as the hero of Ariosto's 16th-century narrative poem; now it conjures up the strains of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon "Round the Old Oak Tree" and the sun-soaked giant mice of Disneyworld, Florida.

The name Peter Sellers has undergone something of the same transformation. The late movie comedian was a hero of sorts, forever skirmishing with a legion of enemies of the quizzical stare and the faraway gaze. And now his near-namesake, Peter Sellars '80, has devised a monumental gesture to commercial fantasies in his new American Repertory Theater production of Handel's opera Orlando, at the Loeb Drama Center.

When Handel composed Orlando in 1732, based on the Ariosto saga, his cast of characters consisted of the hero of the title, the Queen of Cathay, an African prince, a shepherdess, and a magician. The setting was simply a nameless forest. "Handel's audience didn't need to be told who Orlando was, as audiences today don't need to be told about Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock," Sellars writes in the production's program notes. "As soon as the characters appeared, the audience had a set of collective expectations, and was ready for action. Thus, I think the logical choice is to update these cliches in modern production."

And so, the setting becomes 20th century Florida--specifically 50 miles due east of Orlando, at the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral. Orlando is an astronaut, of course; the queen is a high-strung debutante; the prince, an infantry soldier; the shepherdess, a funky beach-bunny; and the magician, a project supervisor at Mission Control.

This unlikely quintet may not exactly fulfill the ART audience's collective expectations. They sing the original Italian libretto, for instance, and tend to roll about the floor in odd formation--but their capacity to charm and delight is endless. All five are top-flight performers: well-suited vocally for Handel's soft, delicate arias, and passionate and convincing as actors. Sanford Sylvan reveres every syllable he sings as Orlando, and his gentle descent into madness (represented as the planet Mars in this production) is mesmerizing. Janet Brown's rendition of the queen/deb Angelica's melancholy reflection on false hopes is another high-point: sweetly sung but bitterly felt. (The ART has double cast Orlando, the singers in the performance I saw were Sharon Baker, Robert Honeysucker, and Mary Kendrick Sego.)


But much of Orlando's appeal lies in the sheer playfulness with which Sellars has approached it. Where the original staging calls for Zoroastro the magician to conjure up a fountain to hide a furtive lover, Sellar's project supervisor summons up a drinking fountain, from which Angelica casually takes a sip. In the conclusion of the original, when Zoroastro calls for a potion, he receives it from the claws of an eagle descending out of the sky. Sellars's Zoroastro receives his potion in the claws of The Eagle--the Apollo 11 lunar module, that is. (In both cases, a printed synopsis of the opera lets the audience know the original scenario.) This sort of inventiveness does not constitute a groundbreaking reinterpretation of Handel, but it's a refreshing and cheerful Handel nonetheless.

Above all, Sellars's updating never interferes with the music. In fact, many of his innovations involve clever exploitation of the Handel score. The bouncy rhythms of Dorinda's first-act aria on the ineffable nature of love--she's the beach bunny, nee shepherdess--become the excuse for an hilarious mock-disco strut. Later in the opera, when Dorinda sings of love's bitterness, it is Sellars's inspiration that she pour herself a stiff drink between repetitions (all Orlando's arias consist of six or eight lines repeated again and again), with the result that her octave leaps slowly become sozzled hiccups.

IF THERE IS ANY FLAW in Peter Sellars's recasting of Orlando it is his tendency towards cryptic, coyly symbolic staging. Why, for instance, is there so much rolling around? Why does Zoroastro mug and wave at the audience incessantly? And why are all those cardboard boxes littering the stage in the last act? No doubt each of these elements has its place in Sellars's masterplan, but too often, his is an aggressively private vision.

Sellars offers explanations for many of his departures in the scene-by-scene synopsis he has prepared for Orlando's audiences. Though gratuitously academic at times ("In an extraordinary passage in 5/8 time, considered outlandish and daring in the 18th century, Orlando crosses the river Styx...) and occasionally pretentious ("What is man? What is a man?), for the most part, the notes show the puckish sense of fun that characterizes the production at its best. "This will not do," Sellars writes, "and Zoroastro abandons subtlety and launches into his aria, 'Leave Love and Follow Mars: Go Fight!' (The Pentagon, after all, is what is keeping the space program alive.)" Or for Dorinda's final summons to a festival of love, Sellars's version is "Dorinda--the real miracle worker--invites everybody over to lunch."

Sellars is now part of a distinguished tradition of opera-synopsis parodies--an art whose greatest practitioner was without a doubt the late Robert Benchley. Benchley's account of Act II of Die Meister-Genossenschaft is especially instructive:

Repenting of her deed, Immergluck has sought advice of the giants, Offen and Besitz, and they tell her that she must procure the magic zither which confers upon its owner the power to go to sleep while apparently carrying on a conversation.... Immerglich calls to her side Dampfboot, the tinsmith of the gods, and bids him make for her a tarnhelm or invisible cap which will enable her to talk to people without their understanding a word she says. For a dollar and a half extra, Dampfboot throws in a magic ring which renders its wearer insensible.

Peter Sellars's version of Orlando is not a work of Handel scholarship, any more than Benchley's synopsis is a work of Wagner scholarship. But Benchley's spirit is in many ways Sellars's as well: an abundant wit, a vaguely lunatic sense of the absurd--and just the slightest touch of the tarnhelm.

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