Orpheus torn to pieces by the Maenads, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso,
ed il Moderato, Mark Morris Dance Group
The oratorio is strikingly beautiful on its own, but Morris has choreographed it with such effervescent joy that it becomes something new and different and even more rewarding to experience. As in so many of Morris's choreographies, Handel's musical motifs and formal structures are revealed by the dancers, not as some dull analytical exercise but with an enlightening visual pop. The sense of dance and movement underlying Baroque music -- heightened here by the addition of an introductory overture, Handel's G major concerto grosso (op. 6/1) -- is nowhere so clear as in the way Morris shows it. Morris tilts the scales obviously to the side of L'Allegro, making joy and happiness, rather than moderation as Jennens saw it, carry the day. There are little vignettes that illustrate the melancholy side, loves thwarted into tragedy, but this is not soul-crushing melancholy but the gloom of imagination that inspires artistic creativity (the role of that humor in Renaissance philosophy).
Morris's movement ideas often come directly from the text, sometimes naive like the udder-pulling movement that goes with the bucolic image of milkmaids singing, but still charming. The pastel colors of the costumes (designed by Christine Van Loon) and the moving scrims of the abstract set (Adrianne Lobel), that move and rearrange into different patterns and color schemes, the sense of leisure and fantasy, pastoral escapism reminded me of nothing more than a Rococo painting, a series of Watteau pastels come to life, part theater, part dream. Lifted dancers made some of the most memorable images, especially in bird-like flights in the arias Mirth, admit me of thy crew and Sweet bird, in imitation of the avian twitters of violin and flute solos. In one unforgettable tableau, a troupe of dancers flitted about like the flock of starlings in Dante's second circle. The horn calls of To listen how the hounds inspired a hunting scene, with dancers forming groves of trees and shrubs, while a hilarious group of dogs pursued its quarry. Courtly dance, like that of an English masque, and its assimilation of country folk dance pervaded many of Morris's gestures, as in the grand roundel that ends the first half.
Sarah Kaufman, Under Mark Morris, Handel oratorio becomes a visual feast (Washington Post, January 28)
---, Mark Morris’s “L’Allegro”: Imagination Unbound (Washington Post, January 21)
This performance repeats tonight (January 28, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Opera House.