When you connect the dots, you resolve the plurality into a unity: what stopped and started becomes one continuous sweep. Do the points determine the curve as the mathematicians say or are they merely the occasion for drawing a curve? Are they the moments of truth that the curve ties together into a greater or fuller truth, or random specifcs that only the curve redeems? In short, are the things that happen in our lives a mere chaos, “one thing after another” that need to be redeemed by an interpretation that fnds the meaning and truth of it all? Logically, it’s the old problem of the one and the many; existentially it is the search for meaning in our lives; and in the world of opera, where the libretto and score provide the points and the mise en scene provides the curve, it is the question whether the composition is the means to the director’s end, or the director’s job is to actualize the potential inherent in the givens. This is the problem of interpretation; and for me the first (but not last) question to ask about any mise-en-scene, is whether the director plunges the audience into the midst of the problem or whether he simply serves up an interpretation and leaves the audience on the outside looking in.
From the Sellars productions I have seen (l’Amour de Loin, The Tristan Project, Adriana Mater, Dr. Atomic, Passion de Simone, and now Hercules) it is clear he is very much alive to the dialectical relation between the givens and the interpreting of them, and thus he always engages the audience. Of these pieces several were new – the first, third and fifth, by Saariaho – but even here there was a tension between the original material and the interpretation it morphs into. The Passion of Simone, perhaps least known, is an instructive example: the ascetic and mystic life of Simone Weil, which we know about from the inside through her notebooks, is here presented from the outside through a soliloquy of her sister who resents that Simone’s hapless devotions have deprived her of her attention. In very fact, however, Simone had no sister. This personage was invented only to produce the external view.
There is something oxymoronic about inventing a person only to enable that person to complain about being neglected! What’s gained is that the inner turmoil of a very rare person who increasingly finds herself unsuited to live in space and time is made more accessible to a larger audience, but what’s wrong about it is that it’s a lie. The early Greek poet Hesiod sings how the Muses came to him one day and told him they could tell him many false stories that are like the truth, but also, when they wished, could tell him a true one; and that then they gave him a poet’s staff. The message of Hesiod’s “experience” is that the person that bears the poet’s staff needs to know which is which — which fctions are harmless
diversions and when on the other hand one must rise to the duty of being a spokesman for truth. In other words, the poet must redeem the lie in what he says with the meaning or lesson his fction produces. The question that nags me in all of Sellars’s work is that the wager is always too close. The the bad of it is he is playing light with the truth; the good is that the audience is both enabled and required to get involved, down to each individual, and each individual will be deciding for himself.
The story of Hercules and Dijanira as it is told by Handel and Thomas Broughton is a story of irrational jealously suddenly arising in this hero’s wife upon his return from conquering Oechalia. The object of her jealousy is Iole, the Princess of Oechalia. Hercules has brought back as a captive having slain her father. Once the spark of jealousy appears it grows to a confagration within Dijanira’s breast: she charges him with infidelity, a charge for which we see only contrary evidence, a charge which frst Iole and then he and then his helpmate Lichas, also loyal to Dijanira, vehemently deny, each to the point of asking wherever she got such an idea. It is Hercules’s son Hyllus, of course, that is attracted to young Iole, but she gently rebuffs his approaches. Losing her father and homeland have made her unable to think about love, for now. Then, just as suddenly as Dijanira’s jealousy fared up it burns out, and now she wants to win Hercules’s affections back. She remembers the shirt of Nessus, the centaur that Hercules slew to protect her: dying he gave her his bloody shirt and told her someday it would rekindle Hercules’s love if she needed to. Hercules puts it on and its true powers are revealed. He is poisoned, Nessus is avenged, and Dijanira discovers that in her tragic folly she has become his instrument.
This is a story of jealously as the libretto continually tells us. We have been warned of its fitting fashing power by many operas, from the Queen Mab of Berlioz to the Wahn Hans Sachs finds on every page of history. But Sellars has another story to tell, and the da capo style of Handel’s opera and utter absence of stage directions in the libretto gives him enough space between the dots to draw whatever line he wants. While the one character is elaborating a couple of lines in an extensive song, the others have also been brought on stage, and walk around and interact by their body language and even with pantomime. Silently a second interpretation or interpretive overlay is being added. Hercules is a proud militarist dressed in desert fatigues returning from some military adventure in the Middle East, his emotions so galvanized by the senseless violence of his mission that he can no longer love in a family way (though he sings that he looks forward to it: 24-25). His wife has been so worn down waiting for him she, too, can no longer stand the vulnerability of love (though she still anticipates it eagerly: 4, 5, 9) and now pops tranquilizers. The choreography portrays Hercules lusting after Iole at the same time that he sings his loyalty and love to Dijanira, compounding the sins we had inferred from his costume and strutting manner; and the virgin Iole is easy.
Of the singers Eric Owens sang as ugly as this Hercules needed him to; Alice Coote redeemed a lackluster performance fraught with irrelevant histrionics with her late Accompagnata “Where shall I fly” (62), as did Richard Croft with his late Aria “Let not fame the tidings spread” (61), which had little enough to do with Sellars’s plot that it could be delivered unmolested. The clarion simplicity of David Daniels also fourished under the radar, in the side role of Lichas. The evening was stolen by the least known singer, Lucy Crowe as Iole, whose “How Blest the Maid” almost stopped the performance for a curtain call, and certainly would have had she been allowed to deliver it standing, as she was at the very end, rather than crosslegged in front of the chorus’s hotdog stand.
George Tsypin’s set was a smattering of grecian ruins framing an empty center that characters could walk into or out of, with a backdrop colorable and perforated so that Ingalls’s backlighting could make it seem a starry sky (a very beautiful effect for Hyllus’s Aria, “Celestial seats descending,” 41) or a sky full of burning shrapnel (as it next appears, while Dijanira accuses Hercules of having devolved into a philanderer) or an underground hell with fery walls at times too bright to bear, to portray the hell that Hercules dies in (though in truth his pyre makes him immortal). Rumicova’s costumes were a congenial motley, diffuse in overall effect.
Sellars’s curve left Handel’s dots behind, and the fashy confusion of melodrama left behind the quiet power of tragedy. It is the piper’s pipe and not the poet’s staff he bears. Spectacle and innovation can be good but dumbing things down cannot: the bad guy isn’t somebody other than yourself and the good girl isn’t just the person you wish you were when you were young. — Ken Quandt