I noticed that Channel 4 had an opera by Handel scheduled one Saturday night in 1996. I like opera so I thought I would tape it. This being the nineties taping it literally meant making a physical copy on electromagnetic media. I plonked the tape in the video recorder and rather than wrestle with the elaborate procedure of setting the timer I just made a point of being by the telly when it was due to start and pressing the red button. I started watching it to see what it was like and to make sure the temperamental machine was actually doing its job. Within minutes I was hooked, and in the end sat through the whole three and a half hours. I wasn’t alone – my wife and small kids joined me and were similarly captivated.
I don’t know what other people get out of it, but for me an opera is good when it tells a story. Peter Sellar’s production certainly does that, and it gets off to a great start even while the overture is playing. An audience is gathering for a meeting. What you wonder is going on?
It soon unfolds into a what looks like a press conference, with a US president announcing a crackdown on dissidents. Handel worked from a libretto by Thomas Morell who in turn had adapated it from a novel by Robert Boyle – the scientist famous for Boyle’s Law. Boyle’s novel had been a fictional account of the persecution of Christians by the Romans in the reign of Diocletian.
I think Morell and Handel conceived it as simply a tragedy. Sellars adds a whole new dimension by examining the nature of tyranny, and giving it a real modern twist. The Roman soldiers are dressed in NASA uniforms and huge assault rifles. The Chorus of Heathens becomes a press pack waving newspapers and soft drink cans. These indicate the power of corporate sponsors.
The Christians are obliged to offer a sacrifice to Jove which their consciences forbid them to comply with. The authorities are unwilling to compromise and will not back down. Neither will the Christians, so conflict is inevitable. This leads to some action sequences and the inevitable operatic trope of a bit of cross dressing. But ultimately the Christians cannot win and choose to die rather than comply. In the last act they voluntarily hand themselves over for execution.
The interesting thing is that this isn’t simply a good versus evil story. There is a character called Septimius who is a soldier charged with putting the repressive measures into place. It is only when he does so that he finds out that his friend Didymus is a Christian. He is horrified and tries to talk Didymus out of his position. “Dread the fruits of Christian folly, and this stubborn melancholy” as he puts it. He also pleads with the Roman governor for tolerance. His pleas fall on deaf ears.
The governor is portrayed as human and troubled by the position he finds himself in. But there is nothing he can do. As he puts it, the laws are not to be trifled with.
But it is the character of Septimius around which the plot centres. He finds himself caught up in and participating in a situation that spirals out of control in front of him and ends up with him pressing the button on the excruciating death of his Christian friends. The Christians in this reading come across as reckless and self centred looking forward to starry crowns in the next life and oblivious to the consequences of their actions in this one. I am sure that wasn’t the intention of the original piece, but it succeeds nonetheless.
It isn’t so much a condemnation of the horrors of intolerance and despotism, as a forensic examination of its toll on ordinary human beings. Powerful stuff, and a story worthy of the musical power of Handel. The cast handle the task superbly. The words and music might be hundreds of years old, but this is a story that works today.
This scene is the highlight of the opera, in which the lead characters are killed with lethal injections. (It is supposed to be a tragedy.)
But if you have three and half hours to spare, here is the whole thing.