L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Mark Morris’ visually stunning ballet based on the combined glories Handel’s music and Milton’s poetics wove it’s magic over a crowded audience Thursday evening, charming equally those with dance in their bones and those without. The piece, presented in collaboration with the Los Angeles Opera, was originally choreographed when the company was in residence in Brussels in 1988. Beethoven, in acknowledging Handel’s genius as a choral composer said he would kneel at his tomb. Morris’ approach was somewhat different, choosing as his homage rather, to hop, skip, run, jump and folk dance his way through Handel’s secular oratorio in an unending stream of accessible invention and movement that washes over you with such appeal that you feel you could do two hours easy with no intermission.
L’Allegro has every thing you could want in music and in verse. Morris’ cleverness is in choosing his music well and giving himself a perch on the shoulders of giants. The poetics, a continuing back and forth for one speaker who advocates on the behalf of mirth and another melancholy, set up the duality that drives the action. The verse comments on intellect, age, the busy hum of humanity, sylvan trysts, farm boys, glorious nature and country dances with a healthy dose of pageantry and a wealth of classical allusion. It is these last two elements which give L’Allegro the unmistakable look and appeal of an antique procession peeled off the side of a Greek vase, then set into motion by a modern hand. The processional reminders are always present, especially one gesture with an outstretched and upturned arm that leads dancers on and off the stage.
The sheer breadth of L’Allegro challenges you to know Milton’s verse so you can better chart the action on stage for yourself. It was not always easy to hear the sung texts on Thursday but even so, the action on stage is easy enough to follow and even if you lose track there is always some pretty diversion at hand to soon set you right. Morris makes an art form of getting his dancers on and off the stage. Groups morph in size and shape, and reform with a kaleidoscopic intensity before your eyes. L’Allegro is least successful when the movement depends on one or two dancers alone to draw your attention. Part The Second starts out boldly with strong and vivid dancing from Maile Okamura in her il penseroso solo. She was always a pleasure to watch. John Heginbotham fared less well in his solo to the choral section of L’Allegro referencing the “knights and barons bold” of Milton’s text. His dancing seemed seriously underpowered and feigned. Was this the intention? Possibly. Sometimes with Morris you never know if you should take him seriously or if you are, perhaps, being punked. David Leventhal was excellent in several sections including the nightingale aria where soloists soprano Hei-Kyung Hong and flutist Gary Woodward were magnificent in the musical special effects department. Laurel Lynch also proved very appealing in her ensemble sections. I liked her personal take on the movement.
In general the women offered a much finer and stronger version Morris’ dancing than the men. The men were, of course, terrific in Part The Second with the March, which devolves into a farce of face slapping, spanking, and promenades using a little polka step. Slap, slap, spank, spank, kiss, kiss, prance away. They played it for laughs and got them. By contrast the women looked refined and emotional accompanying their soprano aria. The twelve women were a convincing and stylish ensemble as they moved in unison and then broke up into trios.
There were many pleasures to be found in the clever exits and entrances, both in individual sections and in the dovetailing together of larger sections as the arias, choruses and instrumental sections unfold. One section has row on row of dancers banking across the stage with arms outstretched like soaring birds. The opening, with running lines of dancers crisscrossing nearly makes you recoil for fear of a collision. Morris has always been excellent using the music and that was never clearer than in Part the Second where linked lines of six wend their way across the stage in varying configurations before breaking into smaller groupings. With the return of the opening music the lovely wending lines reemerge. Even the least musical could see the architectural symmetry of the baroque aria and get a picture of what it might look like in movement. One final tableau in the chorus ..all heaven before mine eyes, finds all the dancers positioned upstage and staring skyward. The dancing has ceased. It is the one moment of reverence in a ballet that has mostly leaned heavily on the profane. The final chorus, These delights.., is used as a kind of moving bow, loaded with arrivals and departures. The movement has been reduced only to running and jumping as it heralds the joyful conclusion.
Grant Gershon conducted a musically charged L’Allegro, which unfolded with all the splendor you could wish for. The most moving music of the evening came late with These Pleasures.., a somber Handelian chorus that revealed the deep essence of the Il Penseroso mood. The oratorio has been redacted to suit the choreography, with most of Part The Third, containing the librettist Charles Mennen’s additions for the Il Moderato sections, deleted. The remaining vocal soloists were soprano Sarah Coburn, tenor Barry Banks, and bass-baritone John Relyea. They were flawless. Gershon in his wisdom had elevated the pit and moved it well out into the orchestra seating area. Gone were the expensive seats, but the music sounded better than anything I have heard in that hall in a very long time.
The sets by Adrianne Lobel and lighting by James F. Ingalls give L’Allegro astonishing visual punch. The colors applied to the vanishing wings and back drop change with each section. Their vision reproduces some of the appeal of 18th century stagecraft. You have a sense of looking into the past through the aperture of the proscenium. The plein aire sequence is painted in broad strokes with a band of blue for the sky and a smaller band of green to represent the fields. Cue the horns, and suddenly you are outside. Christine Van Loon’s costumes, in colors that matched the shifting lighting, played off classical shapes and design. They felt comfortable and gave the dancers an airy quality. The company danced barefoot throughout.
Mr. Morris joined the company, conductor and soloists on stage for final bows. They were finally shooed away for Morris to take a solo bow to what could only be described as wide acclaim and genuine appreciation.