Mark Morris Interprets Handel, Zellerbach Hall, April 25

26 May

Mark Morris likes Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall; he likes the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and he not only likes Baroque music, he excels in staging it, musically and choreographically. This happy combination came together April 25 for the world premiere of the Morris take on George Frederick Handel’s Acis and Galatea; it brought Alastair MacAulay out from Manhattan and enjoyed a capacity audience of music lovers who didn’t bestow a nearly unanimous ovation until the conductor arrived to take a bow. Stingy after the glorious dancing, but understandable, since the orchestra section seemed three-quarters full of grey headed individuals, including this die-hard dance devotee. There is that look to primarily music lovers.

Such a glorious occasion. As the lights were slightly dimmed during the overture, I could spot heads bobbing happily to the music just like mine; all’s right with the world, briefly.

As the curtain rose, Adrianne Lobel’s canvas seemed to suggest Leon Bakst’s 1912 backdrop for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ‘L’Apres Midi D’un Faune”, rendered rugged, jagged, redolent of earthy reds some greens and yellows with browns. Against this Isaac Miszrahi provided the four major singers and dancers with tie dye wafts of yellows to mint green over white for the singers and diaphonous draperies for the dancers, bare to the waist for the men, cap sleeved for the women, floor length all.

On to this stage strode barefooted Galatea in tie dye fashioned with a full skirt and boat neck, framing dimunitive, full-bodied, dark headed Sherezade Panthaki; as Galatea, she was integrated into the dancers’movements as were the three male singers. As she sang the contemplative lines regarding nature in the spring, frequently in triplicate, the Morris dancers moved in trios, curving lines, parallel, crossing , forming circles, arms rising as if to signal “behold!”, or stretched forwards as if to follow with an arabesque which happened. At appropriate places there were skipping phrases, the front leg extended in softened attitude en avant. Of course throughout, Morris inserted silly gestures, echoing the music, hands pushing during multiple orchestra string repetitions, wrists flicked as a tone did a melisma of appreciable length. Where the music warranted, the Morris dancers created circles, moving with step, then pause; at other moments the opening step/kick polonaise blended to the music. Clearly Morris, attuned to the Handel Opera, arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, brought every movement and gesture in his abundant vocabulary into play, laced with his whimsy, wit, at times sly commentary.

Hard to say whether Morris wanted to make a Mutt-Jeff pun in selecting tenors Thomas Cooley and Zack Finkelstein as Acis and Damon when they physically encounter Galatea, but there it was, Cooley sandy-haired, Finkelstein black-haired, underscoring their roles.

Act I requiree Galatea to yearn for love, Acis ditto and bass-baritone Douglas Williams as Polyphemus, vocalizing at length before the two lovers came face to face. A stage drop with two strategic openings, images one could imagine as the head and tail of a whale, abetted the entrances and exits a visual parallel as Galatea was led on and off stage by the dancers, Acis standing alone, but augmented by the Morris men, with partnering as the couple came together in musical ecstasy.

In Act II, Damon, an entirely peevish suitor for Galatea, a dandy quite narcissistic, Galatea fended him off with the aid of the dancers, pushing him in the chest, protecting Acis until the moment when he was felled by a stone, personified by a dancer launched from the dancers over Acis’ shoulders, a marvelous stage resolution.

Again, there were entrances and exits; one telling little group down stage right, required the dimunutive Lauren Grant, collect one leg of three or four dancers across her own outstretched,eliciting laughter from the audience.

Michael Chybowski’s lighting echoed the death of Acis, blocking Lobel’s stage designs, creating a murky grey atmosphere, followed by a dull red; in the apotheosis with Acis as a new god upstage center, gold leaf coronet and diaphonous white shawl draped Indian style across his torso, the happy greens conjuring a blissful pastoral landscape returned before the curtain descended. For me, the summary could be wrapped with one word, “sublime.”

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