19 Apr 2010
Mark Morris Dance Group: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
‘Each action will derive new grace
From order, measure, time and place;’ (Milton, Il Penseroso)
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
‘Each action will derive new grace
From order, measure, time and place;’ (Milton, Il Penseroso)
What fitter words to describe Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato which, 22 years since it first amazed audiences at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, still has the power to incite wonder, astonishment and joy.
Handel’s pastoral ode is a musical reflection upon Milton’s philosophical meditations on the gregarious, the introspective and the balanced modes of living. His librettist, Charles Jennens, (best known as the librettist of The Messiah), selected and assembled Milton’s poems sequentially, and added the text for Il Moderato; Morris re-arranges once again, moving continually but naturally between contrasting states, the frolicking lightness of L’Allegro tempered by the brooding melancholy and pensiveness of Il Penseroso; and he adds two movements from Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.1 to serve as an overture.
Music’s power to express emotional states, or affekts, and to produce ethical responses in the listener, was an essential thesis of the seventeenth-century artistic and spiritual imagination, and one which continued to be upheld by eighteenth-century composers of opera seria. Here, Morris seems almost literally to lift the notes from the page as his dancers physically embody the rhythms, textures and figures of the musical score; his forms present a stunning visualisation of the way music can initiate or allay particular passions and sentiments. And, in so doing, Morris reveals his own, oft-remarked, innate musicality and, more especially, a profound appreciation of the architecture and ethos of baroque musical forms. Rigorous, mathematical choreographic structures are interlaced with ornamented mannerisms and deviant whirls; gestural cliché sits happily alongside surprising idiosyncrasy.
Morris is ably supported by his designers. The warm lighting (James F. Ingalls) effortlessly matches the modulations from light to shade, from clarity to opacity, of Morris’s sequence; it is complemented by Adrianne Lobel’s simple but purposeful conception of the literal and philosophical spaces suggested by text and score - the dancing arena now foreshortened, now extended, almost imperceptibly, by an airy array of descending drops and gauzes. Christine Van Loon’s costumes gladly conjure the pastoral simplicity of classical nymphs and shepherds, the muted pastels of ‘Part the First’ giving way to more vibrant tones in the latter half.
William Blake’s nineteenth-century illustrations of Milton’s poems are cited as a visual influence; but also evoked are the stained-glass windows of a gothic cathedral, panes of many and contrasting colours through which the light reverberates illuminating tales in rich tapestries — such windows as Milton himself described in Il Penseroso, ‘Storied panes richly dight’.
Indeed, the intersection of the vertical and horizontal in Morris’s forms, and in Lobel’s shifting panels and flats, does suggest the meeting-point of heaven and earth, of spirit and flesh, as expressed in the perpendicular architecture of the seventeenth century. Most fittingly then, Morris combines narrative with abstraction for in so doing he combines qualities inherent in seventeenth-century verse, with its integration of the human and heavenly, with those of eighteenth-century music, with its preference for metrical regularity, abstract universality and conceptual clarity.
To focus overly on such weighty matters is, however, to overlook that in this collection of more than 30 dances, gravity is equalled and occasionally challenged by Morris’s trademark wit and irony. In an hilarious hunting scene, three leashed dogs pursue fleeing foxes, pausing momentarily to urinate under a tree; even in such wry fun there is beauty, as the changing landscape is simulated by dancers evoking gnarled branches which form and re-form almost imperceptibly before our eyes. Elsewhere seriousness is alleviated with irreverence, as Morris makes playful reference to the formal salutations and farewells of baroque custom and dance. Throughout there is effortless fluidity between change and stasis, speed and stillness.
The work comprises a rich assortment of solos and ensemble pieces, including a startlingly complicated ‘canon’ for three pairs of dancers — momentarily revealing the technical and choreographic complexity which underpins behind the deceptive simplicity of so much of Morris’s seemingly natural, ‘human’ movement. But ultimately this is a company piece, the group extended to 24 dancers; it is not surprising therefore that it is in the choral scenes where Morris’s invention and confidence is most powerfully evident. Most noteworthy are the final scenes in each Part: in the closing scene, to the celebratory accompaniment of vibrant trumpet fanfares, the 24 dancers form streams of colour, streaking and darting across the stage, conjuring startling pace, energy and joie de vivre — ‘These delights if thou canst give/ Mirth with thee I mean to live’.
The four singers, sopranos Sarah-Jane Brandon and Elizabeth Watts, tenor Mark Padmore and bass Andrew Foster-Williams, all projected the narrative superbly, blending convincingly with the stage drama, enhancing and receding as appropriate. Foster-Williams, in particular, delivered his airs with buoyancy and brightness. Jane Glover skilfully conducted the alert, energised members of the English National Opera Orchestra, bringing freshness and translucence to Handel’s score; the woodwind were especially impressive, exquisitely evoking the pastoral milieu, as when first a lark, and then a whole flock of birds, intricately twist and tumble in fantastic flight, their aspiring arcs symbolised by a scintillating soaring soprano. The New London Chorus were crisp and clear throughout.
The ‘imperfect, labouring’ bodies noted by Joan Acocella in her 1994 critical biography - and which once exemplified Morris’ preference for dancers who whose physicality captured the mortality and genuine ‘flesh-and-blood’ of the human form — were no longer so dominant, replaced by a sweet litheness of form and truly eloquent tenderness. Yet, Morris’s pastoral vision is not an ethereal or idealised landscape but an earthy dominion where the rich diversity of the human spirit is rejoiced. Capturing all the elements which have characterised Morris’s career — beauty and realism, levity and gravity, formal rigour and quirky invention — it remains utterly captivating and uplifting. It is, in the words of Milton himself, ‘linckèd sweetnes long drawn out. (L’Allegro)