Acis and Galatea, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, US – review

Dance and opera, we’re told, inhabit different spheres; they are doomed to share a reluctant co-existence on a stage. That bromide held true until choreographer Mark Morris decided he would direct singers as well as dancers. Now he has turned to his first Handel stage work, and the result, aside from a few vocal bumps, leaves one in a state of happy inebriation.

Morris chose well. With its small cast, bare narrative and wondrous economy, this 1718 pastorale easily evokes an intimate dream of Arcadia, which was populated at Friday’s Cal Performances premiere by the 18 remarkable members of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Their dizzying exits and entrances and elaborate patterning suggest a community which bolsters the eponymous lovers and consoles them when tragedy strikes. The dancers’ constantly reaching arms, surprise hops and fluid unisons seem an extension of the Handel score, rather than a response to it. Morris is not above sending up his own musicality; a mention of straying flocks summons a bounding ensemble of livestock. “Love sounds th’alarm” prompts an urgent march from dancer Laurel Lynch. Isaac Mizrahi’s filmy, mottled green costumes and Adrianne Lobel’s landscape drops propose a mythic landscape, a world au naturel.

The tone is alternately boisterous and tender. Morris responds intensely to the manifold beauties of the score. Acis’s “Love in her eyes sits playing” summons a courtly romantic duet from dancers Aaron Loux and Chelsea Lynn Acree. Morris interweaves dancers and singers with flair. He banishes special effects. The evil giant Polyphemus slays Acis with a wave of his arm and fells victims by touching them. In place of Acis’s climactic transformation, the dancers flow into a ritual cortege.

Morris employs Mozart’s arrangement of the Handel with its added strings and winds and through-composed recitatives. Under Nicholas McGegan’s brisk, canny tempi, the 31 players of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra brought a burnished sonority and delectable stylistic flourishes to their task. In the pit, the Philharmonia Chorale produced a robust sound.

The cast was occasionally tested by McGegan’s exuberance. Sherezade Panthaki introduced a crystalline soprano, which, after a hesitant opening, invested Galatea with great empathy (but why so little ornamentation?). Thomas Cooley’s Acis possessed the notes, but missed maximal refinement. Zach Finkelstein’s Damon made much of “Would you gain the tender creature”. Douglas Williams deployed a winning stage manner and a sturdy bass-baritone that lent a gleeful tone to the villainous Polyphemus. It was impossible to resist.

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