Glyndebourne Festival Opera is facing a new storm of dissent over a radical reworking of Mozart that likens the siege of Troy to the war against Iraq. The production, to be conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and designed by Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor, is said to have so enraged some corporate sponsors that they are considering withdrawing their support.
The furore is the latest in a succession of embarrassing rows to mar the opening of the annual festival at Glynde, near Lewes in East Sussex. Only last year, Glyndebourne was condemned as "amoral" by Sir Jonathan Miller for accepting sponsorship from British American Tobacco for a production of Carmen. Bizet's passionate work centres on a gypsy girl who works in a cigarette factory.
To anyone familiar with the work of the renegade American opera director Peter Sellars, his potentially explosive take on Mozart's Idomeneo will not come as a total surprise. Never afraid to tackle contemporary issues, he famously precipitated the resignation of Sir Peter Hall as Glyndebourne's artistic director in 1990 after audience members stormed out of his rendering of The Magic Flute set among drug addicts on a Los Angeles freeway.
Although his new production is unlikely to be as provocative as that, it is expected to draw parallels between some of Mozart's key protagonists and, among others, the hawks and doves of the Bush administration.
In the opera, one of the main characters, Idamante, the son of King Idomeneo of Crete, is portrayed as a selfless romantic who falls in love with an enemy captive, the daughter of King Priam. It becomes clear that he is prepared to sacrifice his comfort, and ultimately life, for the greater good.
Sellars' production is being kept under close wraps by Glyndebourne, which has declined to put him up for interviews until after next month's opening night. But he is expected to project the Idamante scenario into the present day. What has alarmed some companies, particularly those with US interests, are rumours that central to Sellars's interpretation is the message that, rather than going to war with Iraq, the West should have "tried to love it", despite the sins of Saddam's regime.
Glyndebourne is seeking to make light of the rumbling controversy, insisting that the precise form and content of the production have yet to be finalised. A spokeswoman said: "Peter is updating it, but he's not actually making reference to any particular event that took place, as far as we know. He will do his own interpretation with Anish Kapoor's design, and people will read into it what they like."
But well-placed sources say it has already become an open secret among regular patrons of the festival. It is also said to have reached the ears of some high-profile sponsors, among them such multinationals as Audi, Rothschilds, JP Morgan, Shell and Merrill Lynch, that Sellars is preparing to criticise US foreign policy. One source said: "Glyndebourne has a lot of American-based sponsors, and some of them are not at all happy about the idea that he's going to be commenting on the war on terror."
The source added that it was surely no coincidence that Idomeneo is one of only two productions listed in Glyndebourne's festival catalogue without a business sponsor.
Neither Sir Simon nor Sellars were available for comment, but last night Kapoor sought to stem the controversy, insisting that the production would not be drawing any simple analogies with modern-day events or issues.
"We are trying to make a beautiful, powerful work together and I wouldn't want to see it held down by one particular view," said the artist, who recently collaborated with Sellars in a one-off orchestral performance beneath Kapoor's giant sculpture Marsyas at Tate Modern on the eve of the Iraq war. "The world we live in informs everything we do, but I don't believe this is a direct comment on that. The most important thing is the opera. I think is true to the way Mozart's opera is written."
For those who remain unruffled by Sellars's Idomeneo, the festival will also see the revival of his controversial 1996 production of Handel's Theodora, which substitutes the climactic crucifixion of its 4th-century heroine with the execution by lethal injection of a modern-day martyr.