In her time, Isadora Duncan choreographed opera, among them Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” There is lovely pastoral dance in that work; Mark Morris has evoked her spirit and style in Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.” Noted as a “world premiere,” this performance of the 1718 opera featured the Mark Morris Dance Group, accompanied by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Nicholas McGagan, music director) and Philharmonia Chorale (Bruce Lamott, director) with soprano Sherezade Panthaki (Galatea), tenor Thomas Cooley (Acis), tenor Zach Finkelstien (Damon), and bass-baritone Douglas Williams (Polyphemus).
The evening’s best performances were by the company’s dancers. Both men and women were dressed in flowing green print chiffon that set the image of the lovely fields known only in Greek myths. As they frolic through the skipping, leaping, running-turning, twisting lyric steps Morris loves so well, the spirit of baroque pastoral is fulfilled. When the singers enter to tell the story, the spell is broken. They are badly costumed (in contrast to the dancers) and often cannot be clearly heard. Isaac Mizrahi has created costumes for the dancers well, but the singers appear in contemporary street wear, albeit green, hardly suggesting shepherd imagery or immortal goddess.
The dancers lead the singers around the stage, to dramatize the love story, which the singers cannot quite fulfill. Douglas Williams as Polyphemus is the strongest singer-actor, providing the comic element for the love story. It is a simple one: Acis loves Galatea; she is immortal, he is not; Damon sympathizes; Polyphemus, jealous, kills Acis; Galatea turns Acis into a stream. Morris’ choreographic skill is most admirable as he designs geometric patters for the lines of dancers. For this reviewer, he is less admirable when he introduces gestural “mime” elements, e.g. the dancers behave like sheep or goats or birds or pretend to eat. These actions illustrate the libretto, which (though attributed to John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes) needs no illustration. Bad gags.
Laurel Lynch gave an outstanding performance to Acis’ aria declaring he is determined to fight Polyphemus. It is a soldier-like dance, repeated by two sets of men dancers to add to the courage. Chelsea Lynn Acree and Aaron Loux were equally brilliant in first act duets. All the other dancers deserve high praise as well. They are Sam Black, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada Jr., Benjamin Freedman, Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Brian Lawson, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Maile Okamura, Brandon Randolph, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel and Michelle Yard.
Morris has mastered the art of using important live music with dance. The Philharmonia Baroque performed with great skill, as they usually do. Operas such as “Acis and Galatea” are rarely performed with such devotion and vitality. If only all the elements could be executed and integrated with the skill of the dancers and musicians, it could be taken entirely seriously. But Morris mocks the material within his work, and the singers would do better to stand still and sing and let the music soar. Nevertheless, “Acis and Galatea” was a beautiful event: the audience howled with delight.
Joanna G. Harris