The obscene production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro perpetrated on a national audience by “director” Peter Sellars and his ensemble troupe in 1991 still bothers me, not least because the abomination has just recently been released on laser disc. More to the point, I am still trying to reconcile the expenditure of both federal funds and donors’ hard-earned dollars by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), which apparently thought that updating Mozart through the eyes of a pervert was an excellent way to kick off the composer’s bicentennial.
Those familiar with my reviews in Opera News between 1978 and 1989 will know that I am not a champion of bizarre productions. In fact, there are those who thought (and continue to think) that I am some sort of right-wing reactionary opposed to any creative ideas in opera production. This is not true. I have taken every opportunity to applaud those productions I considered to be truly imaginative, such as the 1986 Salzburg Don Giovanni, in which computer-enhanced graphics were used to have the Commendatore’s statue drag the Don into a void of nothingness, or the 1989 San Francisco L’Africaine, in which larger-than-life sets and props enhanced Meyerbeer’s fantastic setting of the saga of Vasco da Gama. Imagination I can take; sheer perversion, for the sake of angering viewers into taking notice of it, I consider unconscionable.
For those who did not see it, Sellars updated the Beaumarchais play to the present and set it in a condominium in the Trump Tower. Figaro and Susanna were given the laundry room in which to set their wedded bliss: a Tide box and Snuggle fabric softener bottle were apparent in the background. Susanna emphasized the fact that Count Almaviva had tried to enjoy her favors by cupping her breasts, while the English “translation” of the Italian text referred to Almaviva as a “dirty old lech.” When Figaro sang Se vuol ballare, the words were translated as “If you wanna dance / Count baby / I’ll play back-up guitar.” Cherubino, dressed as a New York street punk (complete with rat-tail haircut), bounced on the bed in simulated masturbation while singing Nori so piu. Later in the performance, Marzellina came screaming across the stage that she had loaned Figaro “2,000 bucks,” and when the Count made his assignation with Susanna she trembled in disgust against the wall while he put his hand and his head up her dress.
As if to emphasize the “ensemble” effort of the cast, all of the voices sounded alike, thin, brittle, slightly throaty, punching out the lyrics rather than pursuing a curvilinear musical line when called for. The baritones—Figaro, Almaviva, and Bartolo—could have been interchangeable; so too could the Countess and Susanna. No individuality of style or interpretation was allowed. All was to be conveyed by the physical contortions on stage, such as Figaro’s forward rolls in the opening duet with Susanna or Don Basilio’s arm-waving and spinning in circles during his aria. The majority of these singers, in my opinion, do not deserve to be mentioned, but I was astonished and sickened to see Frank Kelley, a decade ago one of the most promising light lyric tenors to ever graduate from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and a former member of Joel Cohen’s Boston Camerata, distorting his still-beautiful voice by following Sellars’ inane directions.
Looking for a confirmation of my impressions, I turned to the New York Times, which I long considered the last bastion of sane musical criticism. Unfortunately, that dictum no longer stands. As if to emphasize the Times’ change of attitude, John O’Connor’s review of this atrocity claimed that young people enjoy Sellars’ approach and that Sellars has a deep respect for Mozart’s intentions! Upon reading that, I decided that someone should define “respect” and “enjoyment” for Mr. O’Connor.
First and foremost, I do not consider a change of venue to be respect for a work of art. Such changes are a sad surrogate for the lack of great operas in our day. If Peter Sellars had such a burning desire to set an opera in New York’s Trump Tower, he should have written a new one himself; he had no right to transport Le Nozze di Figaro to that locale. Giving Sellars the benefit of every doubt, one might say in his defense that he was trying to make modern audiences understand what was so shocking about Beaumarchais’ play and Da Ponte’s libretto when they first appeared. It is true that, since the social situation has changed drastically in 200 years, we have come to accept the plot of Nozze as comfortable fun when in fact it was taken from a play banned in Europe; but to bring the stage action to the point of vulgar farce negates the marvelous transformation that Mozart and Da Ponte wrought in bringing its message up a notch, from the level of the gutter to the level of true art. Sellars seems to forget that, though Beaumarchais’ play was banned at court, Mozart’s opera was not, and the distinction lies not so much in softening the implied class struggle as in moving the drama and its motivations from the external, physical plane to an internal, spiritual one. The most moving passage in the entire opera is the count’s begging of forgiveness, Contessa, perdono; indeed, its simplicity and nobility make it one of the most moving passages in all of opera. In the space of perhaps 20 seconds, a lively comedy has become deadly serious, and in the count’s utterance is the full measure of Mozart’s belief in the essentially patrician state of the human spirit. Set against Sellars’ trashy, glitzy backdrop, and with the vulgarities that he reintroduced into the plot, this scene is not merely meaningless but bizarre. At that moment, anyone with a soul watching tin’s performance would know that Sellars had not respected but betrayed Mozart.
As for what young people enjoy, bear in mind that this is a generation that equates lust with love, a generation that admires men who get the most sex and women who wear their underwear on the outside. This is not exactly the type of audience one would expect at an opera, and those who saw and “enjoyed” Sellars’ Nozze did so on a purely external level. Like the director himself, they were titillated by the presentation of a farce comedy in the most obnoxious setting imaginable; they enjoyed not the music per se, but the physical contortions that accompanied it, the slang modernization of the translations, the depiction of characters not unlike themselves. Were you to send this same audience to a conventional production of Nozze, they would probably walk out or fall asleep from boredom. The music was not what grabbed them, and in opera the music is the message. Anything less is not opera, but some bastardized form of “art” that does not fit any definition I can recognize.
The financial support and implied encouragement for Sellars’ visual perversions from PBS speaks volumes for its respect of humanity as a whole and its viewers in particular. If I were head of PBS, the mere appearance of this Nozze de Figaro would frighten me into pulling the plug on Sellars’ Don Giovanni (which is set in the South Bronx, with the Don dressed like Andrew Dice Clay) and Cosi Fan Tutte (set in an upstate New York diner, whatever that has to do with anything). But the powers that be obviously buy into Sellars’ claim that his productions bring “a new audience ” to opera, and as a result they are more than willing to offend the old guard. Well, we will see what happens when their annual fund drive comes around. I can just imagine the spoiled brats of the MTV generation turning in a portion of their allowance to PBS because they enjoyed the antics of Cherubino. Stephen M. Stroff