Baritone Sanford Sylvan had so many great operatic roles, it’s hard and maybe even silly to single out any of them. The wise and sinister Chou En-lai opposite James Maddalena’s enthusiastic and oddly innocent Nixon in the original cast of John Adams’s Nixon in China. The exuberant Figaro jumping up and down on a bed with Jeanne Ommerle in the famous Peter Sellars/Craig Smith “Trump Tower” production of The Marriage of Figaro. Or as Orlando, in his mad scene, being wheeled across the stage on a gurney, in the Sellars/Smith production of Handel’s Orlando at the Loeb Drama Center in the days when the A.R.T. was run by Robert Brustein. Sylvan, with the music transposed for his mellow baritone, was singing the title role in the “second” cast, when there weren’t enough countertenors to alternate with Jeffrey Gall in the first cast.
Sylvan provided another extraordinary moment in another almost forgotten Sellars/Smith production, at Harvard’s Agassiz Theatre in 1983—a double bill of the Brecht-Weil Kleine Mahagonny followed by a staged version of excerpts from Bach cantatas under the title “Conversations with Fear and Hope after Death.” In the Weill, Sylvan was part of a male quartet singing “Oh moon of Alabama!” (that moon hanging overhead like a big Swiss cheese); in the Bach, crouching on all-fours, he sang a heart-rending aria, “How frightened, trembling are my footsteps,” to the obbligato accompaniment of Kenneth Radnofsky’s more-Weill-than-Bach saxophone (one of Smith’s most inspired decisions), as he crawled backwards under a kitchen table. He finally emerged with his arms stretched out against the table in the pose of a crucifixion—a visual and vocal image of total spiritual agony.
But if I had to pick the most electrifying Sylvan moment, one of the most electrifying moments in any opera I’ve ever seen, it would be in Mozart’s sublime trio in the Sellars/Smith Cosí fan tutte—possibly their most underrated collaboration. In this ensemble (the marvelous women were soprano Susan Larson and mezzo-soprano Janice Felty), Don Alfonso is playing a trick on two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. They think their lovers have been drafted and are sailing away to war. But Don Alfonso has actually been plotting with their lovers, betting them that if they returned in disguise and changed places, they could easily seduce the two girls. “Soave sia il vento, traquilla sia l’onda”—“May the wind be smooth, the waves tranquil.” They pray for every element to “respond benignly” to their desire.
But Don Alfonso’s “desire” is different from the women’s. He is not wishing the lovers well. In this production, Sylvan’s Alfonso was a disillusioned Vietnam vet, with a violent streak and a barely hidden contempt for women. Mozart does something completely unexpected in the score. On the word “desir” (“desire”), something really strange happens to the harmony. It’s suddenly not sublime but terrifying. Sellars had Alfonso raise his hands and slowly bring them down to cover his eyes. No other stage director I know has responded so explicitly, so vividly, to this musical moment. I still get chills thinking about it. But it was Sylvan’s profound conviction and emotional depth that made this moment so convincing, so memorable, and so chilling.