Theodora / Glyndebourne 1996 / Daniels, Upshaw, Hunt et al. (1)

The thing I like about Regietheater is that in the most abstract sense it’s about using one thing to talk about another. I mean, all theater does this on some level. It’s metaphors all the way down. But with more abstract and intellectually risky stagings there is a greater distance between what you literally see on the stage and what the thing is about. And what happens in the space between those two things is the draw. That space can contain a great deal.

When I watched this modern production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail from Salzburg where they placed the story in the modern world, my reaction was that the disjuncture between the modern setting (what was literally on the stage) and the interior logic of the story/music was hindering rather than helping. With this Theodora, however, the space between what you literally see and what it’s about is not a disjuncture at all.

This is an oratorio about a young Christian woman who refuses, as Christians often did in Roman times, to make the public sacrifices to the Roman gods that Roman state religion required. Much is made of Theodora’s virginity. This is not explained directly in the libretto, but the usual recounting of the story is that the emperor of Rome had ordered all women to marry and produce children, and it’s Theodora’s refusal to break her commitment to chastity and marry, despite her wealth and beauty, that raises the local magistrate’s ire. But the focus of the oratorio is the requirement that everyone, Christians included, offer sacrifices to the Roman gods.  Theodora, a high status woman — she is referred to as a “princess” in the oratorio — refuses, thus incurring the wrath of the magistrate. Theodora is taken to a brothel where she must either mend her ways or suffer the taking of her virginity by force. This is in her eyes worse than death. Didymus, a Christian among the Roman soldiers, rescues her by stealing into the brothel and swapping clothes with her so that she can escape. Didymus is captured and condemned to death, and Theodora joins him because she cannot bear to see him die alone for her sake.

The director, Peter Sellars, has made the Romans into Americans. Or Americans into Romans. This is actually an interesting question, about the way the metaphor works. You can read this as using the martyrdom narrative to make a political point about modern America, or you can read this as using all of our associations with modern America to illuminate a martyrdom story which might otherwise feel distant and strange. Or both of these things. But the second makes more sense to me.

Valens, the Roman magistrate, is an American politician, complete with a red and blue striped tie that looks like it came direct from the Republican Campaign Wearhouse. The chorus are dressed in red and blue, with touches of yellow. This may be me seeing 1990s clothing and hairstyles with 2012 eyes, but they seem as middle America as middle America can be. They carry guns, magazines, cans of Coke and little jars of something I couldn’t identify – molasses? Hotsauce? I’m not sure. But they point to the Coke cans during the line “sweeter than the trumpet’s sound” in one of the early choruses. Perhaps the “groans and cries” of the disobedient are sweet, but ultimately valueless and empty to their audience – or perhaps they enjoy the spectacle (the sweetness) and care little where it comes from or how it was produced.

So, the United States, with the familiar associations of materialism, bombast and violence, stands in for Rome. You could claim that  this is a political critique of the US, and in a sense of course it is — but this is one we’ve all heard before. I think the metaphor is more interesting if you look at it from the other direction. This is an unpleasant image of the United States, but the metaphor is at least as much about communicating the ubiquitous, suffocating power of Rome (or perhaps more accurately ‘the world’ in general) from the point of view of people like Theodora. You can read it as a political allegory, or you can read it as a way of expressing what a specific situation felt like to the participants.

But we Americans are always talking about ourselves! There is far more to this production than this particular metaphor. [next part here.]