in: Reviews

May 16, 2014

Acis and Galatea: Mark Morris’s Mixed Bag

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Morris Dance Group under the aegis of the Celebrity Series of Boston, the Mark presented the East Coast premiere of Morris’s choreography to Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, with four solo singers and Nicholas McGegan leading a chorus and orchestra from the Handel and Haydn Society. I came to the Shubert last night with high expectations given my past experiences with MMDG and the buzz and the advertising push before opening night. From sublime to ridiculous, we witnessed a mixed bag.

Handel’s musical pastoral dates from 1718, with a libretto by John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes. It adapts the story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses of a love triangle gone murderously awry. Morris summarizes the plot as: “Acis is in love with Galatea. The monster, Polyphemus, also loves her. In a jealous rage, and spurned by Galatea, Polyphemus hurls a boulder at Acis and mortally wounds him. Galatea uses her magic powers to change her dead lover into a stream that will flow eternally.” The work underwent several revisions, beginning as a masque, becoming a serenata, then a two-act pastoral opera. Mozart re-orchestrated the operatic version in 1788. (For more information about the evolution of the opera, see related interview here).

Mozart’s fleshed-out orchestrations and spiced up arrangements gave plenty of opportunities to show off the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra’s beautifully balanced strings, crisp attacks, and fine wind playing.  Horn intonation was sometimes a little unreliable, a challenging issue with period instrument horns, though there was a particularly lovely clarinet duet in the opening Sinfonia, showcasing the nimble playing of Eric Hoeprich and Diane Heffner.  From the orchestra pit, McGegan shaped a thoughtfully considered sound, full of shape and intent but always supporting the singers on stage.  Eighteen members of the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus made an admirable sound alongside the orchestra musicians in the pit.  They sang with incisive, clear diction (the lone exception in the Introduction to Act II, where the fugue around the text, “Behold the monster Polypheme!” got a little murky) and lovely balance (an unaccompanied segment of the chorus “Mourn, all ye muses!  weep all ye swains!” was stunningly executed and moving in its collective vulnerability).

The visual elements mostly matched the high standard of the musicians. Adrianne Lobel’s background paintings filtered forest and country cottage images through a post-Impressionist watercolor sensibility. This gave ample color and space for Michael Chybowski’s skillful, dramatic lighting, with color palettes ranging from greenish hues for the pastoral celebrations, to browns and reds highlighting Polyphemus’s jealous rage and Acis’s death, to a side-lit near black which starkly illuminated Galatea’s grief. Isaac Mizrahi designed flowing dresses for the women and long skirts (without tops) for the men of flowing gossamer fabric imprinted with pale greens and spring bloom pastels that invoked the soft riot of hues in a spring garden. The costumes flowed beautifully with swirls and kicks, and were used to cleverly illustrate flickering flames. I had problems with his costumes for the four vocal soloists, but more on this below.

Mark Morris may be the most musically sensitive choreographer around, with an uncanny ability to match gestures and group movements to the motifs and structures in the music. His structural genius found its finest expression last night in Damon’s Act II aria, “Would you gain the tender creature,” where the dancers swirls, leans on each other, reclining maneuvers, and paired bends recapitulate moves from Galatea’s Act I aria, “Hush, ye pretty warbling choir!” thereby illuminating textual parallels about suffering, pain, and death that inevitably accompany love. His choreography struck my untrained eye as drawing mostly from the vocabulary of ballet, though there were characteristic unorthodox maneuvers, like a hip-hop-esque move in that Act I Galatea aria, an amusing evocation of a herd of sheep in Damon’s Act I recitative, “Stay, shepherd, stay!,” a quartet dancing in twisted Rockette fashion in the final chorus of Act I, and a sort of demented Riverdance in Acis’s Act II aria, “Love sounds th’alarm;” all of these drew amused giggles from the capacity crowd. Other moments were tender and touching, with one particularly striking moment in Galatea’s final aria, “Heart, the seat of soft delight.” The dancers swirled in lamenting fashion around her, then on the words, “Rock, thy hollow womb disclose!” they all fell to the ground at once, as though struck down.

I can’t quite put my finger on what bugs me about the dancing, except to say that I remember seeing Morris’s group for the first time in Celebrity Series presentations about a decade ago. I recall that the dancers at that time had a more diverse range of body shapes and formally trained dance skills. I recall being particularly struck by his artistic alter ego, Guillermo Resto. Late in his career at MMDG, Resto had dreadlocks and a little potbelly, and didn’t move with a ballet dancer’s grace. But every ligament and tendon in Resto’s body moved with unmistakably compelling intent, and worked to tell the story latent in the music. The choreography was also somehow simpler, a collection of moves that an untrained layperson would recognize, maybe even execute without decades of training. Last night’s company of eighteen dancers did have a range of ages, but the men all seemed chiseled, the women all seemed fairly thin, and the gestures and moves communicated, but lacked that extra eloquence of a Resto.

I’m also not convinced by the decision to have the four solo singers join the dancers on stage; it stuck out when the singers didn’t move as nimbly or expressively. The singers’ costumes were in the same pastoral print as the dancers, but in a heavy cotton, almost a denim. Galatea wore a short pleated dress, and Acis and Damon wore snug trousers and button-down shirts—the costumes emphasized the difference between the ethereal dancers and the earth-bound singers. The Galatea, Sherezade Panthaki, has a lovely lyric soprano voice, with mostly solid diction and impressive consistency from top to bottom, but it sounded to me like every aria was sung with the same dynamics and the same approach to text declamation, an approach which can be deadly in a string of repetitive da capo Handel arias. Most of her stage motions were clunky and stiff, and it was only in the later arias of grief and transformation where she showed more expressive freedom. The two tenors, Thomas Cooley (Acis) and Zach Finkelstein (Damon), had flexible lyric tenor voices and their stage actions had more animation, but both tended to lapse into park-and-bark mode when they started singing. The Polyphemus, bass-baritone Douglas Williams, gave the most tantalizing display of how this production could work. Williams’s diction and affect were crystal clear, he deployed a variety of shadings and dynamics, his pastoral-camouflage suit seemed to fit his leading-man looks better, and he showed enough dance chops to be able to match Morris’s dancers at the tail end of his Act II aria, “O ruddier than the cherry,” not to mention indulge in a variety of comically abusive groping of the dancers as they passed him by in the aria. He may have had an easier job of it because he was the villain, but I do think that four singers like him could have made for a more successful evening.

If this seems petty and picky, it’s because my expectations are so high after seeing Morris masterpieces like Falling Down Stairs (Bach Solo Cello Suite #3), V (Schumann Piano Quintet), and L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato. This adaptation doesn’t quite reach those rarefied heights, though there was much to admire, and the ecstatic dancing that accompanied the final chorus, “Galatea, dry thy tears” brought the Shubert Theatre audience to its feet.

Acis and Galatea will repeat at the Shubert Theatre on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. It will be heard again at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York in August 2014 and in Kansas City in February 2015. The Celebrity Series’s 75th-anniversary season comes to a conclusion with a recital by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky at NEC’s Jordan Hall on Thursday, May 29th.

Mark Morris Dance Company in the East Coast premiere of 'Acis and Galatea' at the Shubert Theatre. Credit Robert-Torres

Mark Morris Dance Company in the East Coast premiere of ‘Acis and Galatea’ at the Shubert Theatre.
Credit Robert-Torres

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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