Mark Morris finally has a through-danced baroque comic opera to stand alongside his great tragic Purcell work, Dido and Aeneas. His production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea looked like an instant classic in its East Coast debut, sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston, at the Shubert Theater. (Its world premiere had come earlier, in Berkeley, with later dates planned for New York, Urbana-Champaign, and Kansas City.) The Handel and Hayden Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, gave a glittering rendition of the score in Mozart’s 1788 arrangement.
Unlike in Morris’s Dido, which relegates the singers to the pit, the principal singers in Acis interact onstage with the dancers, eighteen in all. While they participate in much of Morris’s tongue-in-cheek staging of Handel’s tongue-in-cheek pastoral tragedy – the libretto, after all, comes from John Gay, with some doctoring by Alexander Pope and John Hughes – the choreography respects their dignity by using the ensemble of dancers to support them.
Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes cleverly assist. All the dancers wear long skirts, the men barechested, the women in loose sleeveless tops, all cut from a post-Impressionist-style, pastoral-patterned fabric with green botanical forms on white. The singers’ costumes differ, though made from the same bucolic fabric, Galatea (bright-voiced Sherezade Panthaki) in a knee-length dress, Acis (tenor Thomas Cooley) and his fellow shepherd Damon (tenor Zach Finkelstein) in slacks and camp shirts, and most strikingly, Polyphemus (the wonderful bass Douglas Williams) in a suit and tie. Singers and dancers therefore blend into a seamless greenery that acknowledges the singer-dancer divide without creating visual conflict. Adrianne Lobel’s drops, especially a sheltering willow that resembles a baroque ink drawing blown up to stage-size, create a magical space for the unfolding of this ridiculous little tragedy, brightly lit by Michael Chybowski.
The opera turns on a smidge of plot, as Morris’s synopsis laconically tells us: “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.” Appropriately, then, Morris makes his movement more lyrical than dramatic. Yet the dancers sometimes assist the story: pairs and trios of women periodically lead Galatea about, helping her avoid Polyphemus; at one point, as all the dancers file past the monster in a large ring, he molests each one, grabbing breasts and crotches and pawing both men and women – but when Galatea’s turn comes, she sneaks behind him. At the opera’s climax, Maile Okamura tucks herself into a ball and becomes the fatal boulder, the monster bowling her down an alley of upstretched arms until she clonks Acis, knocking him into another world.
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