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Mark Morris's Fête Galante

Orpheus torn to pieces by the Maenads, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso,
ed il Moderato
, Mark Morris Dance Group
We try to catch every visit by the Mark Morris Dance Group, as we have done in 2010, 2009, and 2008, but there were few of the American choreographer's works we more wanted to see than L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, experienced last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. An exuberant translation into movement of Handel's oratorio L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, the work was one of the first successes of Morris's sometimes rocky tenure at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. Handel's music, heard in concert from Opera Lafayette two years ago, is set to a libretto by Charles Jennens. Quite similar to his Messiah, it is a mash-up of existing poetry, bringing together two opposing poems by Milton, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, opposing the two characters of happiness and melancholy and reconciling them with a third allegorical voice, that of moderation, Il Moderato, with poetry written by Jennens.

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.

Other Reviews:

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)
The second half has the more enigmatic moments. A feisty and whimsical male ensemble number -- all violence and sports-like butt-slapping, followed by dainty kisses and paired prancing -- is followed by an all-graceful female ensemble. The one tragic moment came from the mention of Orpheus, to which Morris responded with an episode from the legend of that hero. Not the more famous episode with the death of Eurydice, but Orpheus's death as told by Ovid, in which, despondent at the loss of his wife, Orpheus turns his attention to youths. In jealous anger the band of his female followers, the Maenads who practice the Orphic cult, tear him to shreds. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under the baton of Morris regular Jane Glover, played admirably, with Joseph Gascho (on organ and the slightly hokey celesta for the bell aria) and Adam Pearl (on harpsichord) rounding out the continuo. The fine chorus of the Washington Bach Consort, expertly prepared by J. Reilly Lewis (who was in the house), sang from the left side of the pit, with an able quartet of vocal soloists (sopranos Christine Brandes and Lisa Saffer, tenor John McVeigh, and baritone Thomas Meglioranza) on the right. The performance makes for a perfect cure for the winter doldrums.

This performance repeats tonight (January 28, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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