Handling Handel: Mark Morris’ Acis and Galatea, plus more Handel, Monteverdi, BLO’s I Puritani, the Met’s Cenerentola, and other adventures in opera-land

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Portrait of George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner.

Portrait of George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner.

“Nobody handles Handel like you handle Handel,” Preston Sturges, Unfaithfully Yours

The Mark Morris Dance Group was back in Boston with the East Coast premiere of a major new work, Handel’s ravishing pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, under the aegis of the Celebrity Series of Boston, one of the co-commissioners. I loved it. Or to put it more accurately, I’m in love with it, and saw three of its four performances at the Shubert Theatre. Morris has now staged several complete operas and one Handel oratorio. At least two of these are generally regarded as his masterpieces: Purcell’s one-act opera, Dido and Aeneas (1989), in which all the singers are offstage and the dancers play the main characters; and Handel’s L’Allegro,il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), in which the singers are also offstage, and there are no characters. But in Rameau’s delectable Platée (1997) and in Morris’s productions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Handel and Haydn Society, 1996; the Metropolitan Opera, 2007), singers played the leading roles and appeared on stage along with the dancers.

Maybe because so many people admire L’Allegro, this on-stage mixture of dancers and singers has confused some people, including some critics, about Acis and Galatea. For me, it’s just about flawless in conception and only somewhat less so in execution, mainly because of the level of singing and the choice of costumes for the singers. Otherwise, it both lifted my spirits and moved me. I couldn’t get enough of it.

The Mark Morris Dance Group's production of Handel's Acis and Galatea. Photo © Ken Friedman.

The Mark Morris Dance Group’s production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Photo © Ken Friedman.

After the opening Sinfonia (blessedly not staged — we could actually begin by just listening to the music), women dancers in Isaac Mizrahi’s quasi-transparent long chiffon dresses — like living greenery against the abstract backdrop of Adrianne Lobel’s bosky splashes of paint — and bare-chested male dancers, in similar floor-length chiffon skirts, come rushing in and in non-stop motion circumnavigate the stage. It’s not Morris’s most original or complex pattern of movement, but it’s fresh and buoyant and as the chorus sings about being “free and gay,” “free” was indicated (was I imagining this?) by raised arms and upwardly sprouting wrists and “gay” by raised arms and downturned, limp wrists — a little insider joke?

There are more jokes. The dancers turn into the meekest of tiptoe-ing sheep or pecking, fluttering turtle doves. When Acis asks each rural couple how he can find Galatea (“Where shall I seek the charming fair?”), they reply as if they were in Wonderland, pointing in many opposing directions. The whole number is like the scene in Buster Keaton’s The Navigator, in which he and his girl wander the decks of an unmoored ship and keep missing each other. Then in Acis’s heavenly serenade, “Love in her eyes sits playing,/And sheds delicious death,” lovely Chelsea Lynn Acree, who joined the Morris company in 2011, and Aaron Loux, who joined in 2010, perform one of Morris’s most sensual pas de deux, almost in slow motion as they lean back, winding their arms backwards like parallel bobbins — a mysteriously piercing, ephemeral gesture repeated later by other loving couples. We’re barely halfway into the first act, and the movement keeps getting richer and richer.

At the opening of the second act, the joyous tone abruptly changes, as fate intervenes in the form of the monstrous Cyclops Polyphemus. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there’s the suggestion that his single eye represents the volcanic opening at the top of the overflowing Mount Etna, but neither Handel, nor his librettists, nor Mark Morris seem remotely interested in this symbolism. Handel’s very great chorus, “Wretched lovers,” inspires some of Morris’s most breathtaking choreography. Each choral voice slowly enters in counterpoint, one after another: “Wretched lovers, Fate has passed/This sad decree: no joy shall last.” Then the alarmed voices speed up to repeat their warning: “Behold the monster Polypheme, the monster Polypheme!” Soon, the slow lamentation over the “wretched lovers” coincides with the rushing terror at the monster’s arrival, each phrase repeated at its own diametrically opposite tempo, as the corps dancers lift one member of the corps after another, spread-eagled, from the wings onto the stage, a kind of waterfall of helpless victims. Audiences laugh at the awkwardness of these lifts; I find them both startlingly beautiful and hair-raising. As the lifts continue, the dancers begin to pop up from the corps, not straight up but in rigid diagonals. As the chorus laments the ignominy of intervening fate, couples appear, with a third dancer always, and sometimes forcibly, coming between them. It’s an absolutely unforgettable sequence.

Then Polyphemus is lifted onstage, wearing a tight suit in the same woodland colors as the dancers’ chiffons. In the person of the very tall and deep-voiced bass-baritone Douglas Williams, he’s an omni-sexual predator infatuated by Galatea. He rages, and melts (falling slowly backwards), and burns, singing Handel’s famous and enchanting air, “Ruddier than the cherry,” as he slaps the bottoms and gropes the breasts of his encircling minions, whose wish to please him soon becomes even more sexually graphic. Williams, six/six if an inch, towers over the dancers and even leans his elbow on the head of one of them, calling him “my trusty pine.” He’s the only one of the solo singers who can move like a dancer. At one point he lies on his back and suavely conducts the orchestra with his bare feet. If he doesn’t yet have the depth of tone of an Owen Brannigan or Peter Dawson, the famous Polyphemes of yore, with his excellent diction, solid vocalism, and strong sense of character (and of fun), he gave a splendid all-around performance.

The dancing, of course, was marvelous. Familiar company members like Lauren Grant, Michelle Yard, Rita Donahue, and Maile Okamura (who plays the rock that Polyphemus heaves to kill Acis) are as radiant as ever; while dazzling younger dancers like blond Lesley Garrison, black-bearded Domingo Estrada, and apprentice Brandon Randolph impressed me with how completely engaged they seemed in whatever they were doing. And during Acis’s military aria, “Love sounds the alarm,” Morris gives us a show-stopping semi-parodic solo, based on high-stepping march movements, for the extraordinary Laurel Lynch.

Unfortunately, an opera requires singers, players, and a conductor, and those elements are the weakest side of this production. Nicholas McGegan is an early-music superstar in San Francisco, but his square, bouncy conducting had neither genuine buoyancy nor emotional weight. There was some wonderful playing by the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra. Christopher Krueger, the warbling principal flute, was a stellar soloist. Erich Hoeprich was the excellent clarinetist in an instrumental part Handel himself didn’t write. Morris chose the gorgeous orchestration arranged by Mozart half-a-century later, which includes bassoon and the recently invented fortepiano. But there was some unsettled intonation and shaky ensemble playing. The chorus was small — I’d have said too small for “Wretched lovers,” though it was probably bigger than Handel’s original chorus — but expressive and thoroughly accomplished nevertheless.

Aside from Williams as Polyphemus, the solo singers were a disappointment. Thomas Cooley’s Acis was the closest to being good — sturdy singing at best, crooning or a little toneless at worst, stiff as an actor but with at least some hint of feeling. Tenor Zach Finkelstein, a former political consultant, was a Tanglewood vocal fellow in 2012 and got some good reviews for his appearance in Oliver Knussen’s Higglety Pigglety Pop! (I can’t say I remember him). But as Acis’s friend Damon (a rather undefined character maybe Morris should have done more to flesh out), his wan, reedy voice was not quite ready for the prime-time challenges of Handel.

I’m in complete sympathy with Morris’s point that the singers should look like ordinary people who are surrounded by the otherworldy, seraphically beautiful dancers. Cooley and Finkelstein fit the bill, but Mizrahi’s too-snug costumes for them (variously described as camouflage pants or pajamas) rather over-emphasized the limitations of their physiques.

Most frustrating was the Indian soprano Sherezade Panthaki. Galatea is a role that requires the vocal charm and allure of a young Joan Sutherland (who made one of the classic recordings). Panthaki’s relentlessly hard, white sound never varied. Her diction (no consonants) improved only minimally during the run. “Happy we!”, Galatea’s extended duet with Acis, sounded less “Happy” than “Hoppy.” This musically exhilarating but verbally repetitive number is not one of the happier moments in the libretto, attributed mainly to John Gay (so it might even be a parody of such love duets), possibly along with Alexander Pope and John Hughes and some borrowings from John Dryden. The dim but unreadable supertitles projected high over the stage didn’t augment Panthaki’s inability to communicate words. And her pitch was often painfully off. I liked her feistiness (she slapped Polyphemus after he felt her up) and pleasing plumpness and even her short skirt. She had a good, determined walk. But on several nights there were better sopranos in the audience. I wish we had been supplied with ear-plugs.

The greatness of Morris’s Acis, like yet different from the more abstract and imagistic L’Allegro, has to do with the depth of what he finds in the pastoral mode. The traditional literary oversimplification of natural life cycles, in which Nature is more like a metaphor for Art and its transformative power (which is why the costumes for the dancers, Lobel’s backdrops, and Michael Chybowski’s hauntingly atmospheric lighting were so right), seems especially suited to non-verbal dance, and in particular to Morris’s vision of community through dance.. Combining the abstraction of L’Allegro with the storyline of an opera plot adds another dimension to that vision, and even a kind of confusion. The dancers are not just one character, and don’t represent only one thing. They slip between being part of the action and being commentators on the action, and even being part of the scenery. But watching this visionary kaleidoscope instills in the viewer (certainly in this viewer) the profoundest joy.

*

Susanna and the Elders by Jacopo Tintoretto.

Susanna and the Elders by Jacopo Tintoretto.

There’s been quite a lot more Handel lately, but nothing without major shortcomings. It took 265 years for Handel’s late oratorio Susanna to finally reach Boston, in a concert version by Emmanuel Music, which is not shy about introducing Boston to other Handel works. Based on the story from the Book of Daniel about the loyal wife who resists the advances of two lascivious old voyeurs who watch her bathe then falsely testify to her infidelity, Susanna centers on one of Handel’s strongest heroines. Lorraine Hunt (Lieberson) is the ideal embodiment on an otherwise limp1989 recording led by Nicholas McGegan. At Emmanuel Music, the sweet-voiced Kendra Colton made something sublime of Susanna’s pre-bath hymn to nature, “Crystal streams in murmurs flowing” (we don’t know the identity of the librettist), but her light voice couldn’t convey Susanna’s more heroic qualities. You wouldn’t know that Susanna’s dedication to virtue, “Bending to the throne of glory,” was one of Handel’s most powerful arias.

There was certainly some good singing — mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal, of course, as Susanna’s attendant; Teresa Wakim, as Daniel, whose Perry Mason cross-examinations of the lying elders rescues Susanna from the death penalty — and Emmanuel Music’s director Ryan Turner was in thorough charge of the splendid Emmanuel Orchestra. The whole enterprise was stolen by the two elders (Handel surely wouldn’t have been surprised), played with both comic aplomb and genuine menace by Frank Kelley, maybe our best character tenor, and bass Donald Wilkinson, a Boston staple for some three decades, except that here, reaching way down for his resonant (optional!) low notes and bravura roulades, he was nothing short of a revelation. His aria of unbridled passion, “The torrent that sweeps in its course,” much like Polyphemus’s “Ruddier than the cherry,” was along with Colton’s “Crystal streams” the biggest hit of the show.

Handel’s Samson, based on Milton’s dramatic poem Samson Agonistes and composed a month after Messiah, is an even greater oratorio that has been relatively neglected in Boston. It was given two performances by the Handel and Haydn Society, under Harry Christophers, but it was less successful than Susanna. Christophers is one of those early music conductors who lets the metronome shape his musical phrasing. The arias usually go by at a good clip while the slow music and recitatives drag. Dramatic key changes tend to get glossed over, and the music rarely soars. Except for the trumpets, even the orchestra seemed thin.

Samson needs at least two charismatic singers of great power. The Israelite warrior has been betrayed by the seductive Dalila. He’s at his low point — “eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves.” But he’s about to rise up and bring the Philistine temple down upon the heads of his enemies. British tenor Joshua Ellicott seemed not so much defeated as anemic. His great aria of despair, “Total eclipse,” went by without making much of an impression. And there was no real chemistry, either love or hate, between him and soprano Joélle Harvey, the Dalila, who dismisses her crime against him as an act of curiosity, “a small female fault.” Harvey has a pretty voice, effective in the warbling “With plaintive notes,” another of Handel’s greatest hits. But was she really trying to win Samson back, or was she being ironic? Impossible to tell. The most dramatic or musical energy came from young bass-baritone Dashon Burton, as Samson’s mocking antagonist Harapha, in his H&H debut.

During this same period, the Back Bay Chorale put on yet another Handel masterpiece, the oratorio Saul. I heard good reports, but there weren’t enough hours in the day for me to attend.

An even earlier operatic masterpiece got a rare and impressive treatment: the second of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Ulysses’ homecoming), from the century before Handel. Monteverdi is a specialty of Martin Pearlman, director of Boston Baroque. Not only did he conduct, but he had to edit and orchestrate it, essentially recompose it, since the original score exists only minimally. And his performing versions always seem convincing, though he’s still a little timid as a conductor, which makes a long evening seem even longer.

The clever staging by Mark Streshinsky had a series of rising blue (Mediterranean blue?) platforms surrounding Pearlman and the orchestra, and a long scrim covering over the New England Conservatory sign, a recent, little-loved addition to back of the Jordan Hall stage. The strong playing of the orchestra, and some excellent singers kept the opera alive. I liked Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarãe, not the usual heroic or wily Ulysses, but a more subdued, thoughtful one, and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera even more as the suffering Penelope. Excellent in smaller but pivotal roles were tenor Aaron Sheehan, as Telemachus, and mezzo-soprano Krista River, as the old nurse who recognizes Ulysses. But the real scene stealers were comic tenor Marc Molomot as the glutton Iro (or his partially chewed sandwich that was left lying in full view on the central platform for more than an hour) and mezzo-soprano Leah Wool, as Minerva, who made her entrance disguised as a shepherd carrying a little lamb, and who had the most glamorous voice and the liveliest stage personality in the entire cast.

*

The Celebrity Series invited opera diva Deborah Voigt back to Boston, where her career first took off in 1991, in the title role of Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Here’s what I wrote about her:

As both the wronged Ariadne and the worldly diva who sings her, soprano Deborah Voigt projected a charming good-guy personality and a voluminous, rich-hued sound, the sheer wealth of which excites gooseflesh and will probably make her an international star. And yet she allowed Ariadne’s great invocation of the Kingdom of Death to become merely an aria about the size and color of her own voice. She’s got what it takes, but her aim is low.

Voigt is now famously thinner. She’s been an international diva. Her good-guy personality is still intact, as we can see when she hosts the Met’s Live in HD  telecasts. She’s sung the most vocally dangerous roles: Minnie in Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and Isolde. She’s now 53. At her Symphony Hall recital, there were a lot of empty seats. She can sing loud, but that once glorious instrument is in tatters, and there’s not been a significant growth in artistry to compensate. Her program, accompanied a little heavy-handedly by Brian Zeger, consisted of songs (no opera arias) by Amy Beach, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, William Bolcom, Ben Moore, and Leonard Bernstein, ending the official program with a larger-than-life “Somewhere,” which, I think unintentionally (she had made a number of previous verbal errors), somehow ended on the word “somehow.”

Still, come time for an encore, when she shoved Zeger aside on the piano bench and pounded out her own accompaniment to Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” she really seemed to love that piano; and, still sitting on the piano bench, almost whispering Jerome Kern’s aching “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (from Show Boat), she was “somehow” delivering something more real, more touching, than anything else I’d ever heard her do. She couldn’t resist getting up and belting out the reprise of the Kern, but it didn’t matter — she’d already accomplished more in a couple of minutes than she had during the rest of her concert — if not during the rest of her career.

*

Troy Cook and Sarah Coburn in The Boston Lyric Opera's production o Bellini's f I Puritani. Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2014

Troy Cook and Sarah Coburn in The Boston Lyric Opera’s production o Bellini’s f I Puritani. Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2014

I wish the Boston Lyric Opera would surprise me again, as it did a couple of years ago with Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse at the JFK Library. But its season-closing production of Bellini’s final bel canto masterpiece, I Puritani (the puritans), was only more of the same — a dreary disappointment. Most responsible was the usually stylish music director David Angus’s unstylish and leaden conducting, totally missing the grand swing of Bellini’s phrasing (listen to how the great Tullio Serafin sweeps you up on the Maria Callas recording). Some injudicious cuts, like that of the chorus at the end of the first act, brought the curtain down rather anticlimactically after one of the soprano’s lovelier quiet moments.

There’s really no reason to do this opera at all unless you have two fabulous bel canto stars as the romantic leads. And BLO didn’t have them. Pallid tenor John Tessier, barely adequate as Count Almaviva in BLO’s Barber of Seville, was neither vocally nor dramatically compelling. Soprano Sarah Coburn, Rosina in the Rossini, came alive in the coloratura of the famous Mad Scene, but her high notes were shrill (not the bel canto ideal) and her mid-range had little body. There was no chemistry between these two desperate lovers. Why should we care about them? And except for baritone Troy Cook, as the jealous lover, and lively soprano Chelsea Bassler, as the widowed Queen Henrietta, the singing was substandard (though the audience seemed to like woofy bass-baritone Paul Whelan as Elvira’s sympathetic uncle).

As for Crystal Manich’s production? In what world would a chorus of Puritan women wear crimson dresses? Why was Elvira wandering around the troops in the first scene when Bellini clearly wanted her offstage singing to be our first encounter with her? Why didn’t set designer John Conklin make a visibly clear distinction between the Royalist and Puritan locations? Who allowed lighting designer Paul Hackenmueller to let everything take place in the dark? And what possible motive would encourage a stage director to have the hero stabbed during Bellini’s happy ending? Why don’t stage directors trust composers? The composers usually know better. Why was this whole production so dull?

Before the run of I Puritani was over, the Met Live in HD telecast to movie theaters around the world was another bel canto masterpiece, Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). Cesari Lievi’s production was witty and charming, if a little heavy on the slapstick, and Fabio Luisi made a creditable debut conducting this opera. Tenor superstar Juan Diego Flórez played the Prince. But the real treasure was mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato — perhaps the best leading singer alive today. Her singing was true bel canto — shapely lyric lines not only brilliantly but emotionally ornamented. The beauty and warmth of her tone, the tenderness of her phrasing, her dramatic conviction, are currently unparalleled. I think she could hold her own against any of the great bel canto singers of the past. We’re so lucky to have her — to have someone to show us how it should be done.

*

The Boston Opera Collaborative's production of Mohammed Fairouz's Sumeida's Song. Photo © Jonathan Cole.

The Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song. Photo © Jonathan Cole.

Let me close with high praise for two small opera companies that are doing remarkable things. The Boston Opera Collaborative, operating out of the Somerville Theatre, gave the Boston premiere of the one-act Sumeida’s Song (2008), an impressive work by the prolific and prolifically gifted 28-year-old Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz, an NEC graduate. The opera is based on a play called Song of Death by the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim, in which a university student returns to his village only to be assassinated at the instigation of his mother who can’t forgive him for not taking revenge for the death of his father. The production was compellingly designed by Julia Noulin-Mérat, whose set was a wall made of a pile of old clothes, and particularly well-sung and movingly acted by mezzo-soprano Helen Gallagher, the Mother in the performance I saw (there were two casts). Andrew Altenbach was the accomplished conductor who managed to hold together Fairouz’s diverse influences — lavish orchestral color and spare atonality, Arabic music, Strauss, and Berg — and emerge with Fairouz’s distinctive musical personality.

Opera Brittenica, the small company that devotes itself entirely to Benjamin Britten, impressed me with its first production, The Rape of Lucretia, at the Cambridge Y. The group turned up at Brookline’s All Saints Church for a spine-tingling production of one of Britten’s church parables, the rarely performed The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) — another story from Daniel, the one about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to kowtow to the demands of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The singing was first rate, from veteran baritone Robert Honeysucker, in splendid voice and with impeccable diction as both the Abbot who introduces the story and Nebuchadnezzar’s anti-immigrant Astrologer, to tenor Marcos Vigil (Nebuchadnezzar); Zachary Ballard, Joshua Collier (OB’s executive director), and Ian Pomerantz as the three Israelites visiting Babylon; and Erin Mercutio Nelson as the sweet-voiced angel.

The opera began with hooded monks in a candlelight procession down the aisles of All Saints, but director Erin Huelscamp imaginatively updated the events using glowing iPads and smartphones and turned the pulpit into a fabulous pin-ball machine (Juliana Beecher the inspired lighting designer). The burning fiery furnace itself was one of those fireplace videos. This all meant something, too, enriching Britten and his librettist William Plomer’s satirical take on Babylon as a financial marketplace with images of contemporary self-absorption.

The acoustics of All Saints Church wreaked havoc with everyone’s diction except Honeysucker’s, but it provided the very setting Britten asks for. And the heart of this production was All Saints’ beloved music director (since 1967!) and director-emeritus of Boston Cecilia, Donald Teeters, one of our leading Handel conductors who has also been a longtime champion of Britten and other 20th-century British music. I remember with particular affection his leading the American premiere of Britten’s last vocal work, the cantata Phaedra, setting Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine; and Gustav Holst’s Savitri, a mystical chamber opera based on the Mahabharata. He led Britten’s small but exotic ensemble (organ, viola, bass, flute, horn, alto trombone, percussion, and harp!) with searching, soulful, and burning, fiery musicality.

Lloyd Schwartz

About Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of three poetry collections and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and, most recently, The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Dr. Schwartz’s writing also appears in our sister publication, The Berkshire Review for the Arts, especially in the summer, when he visits Tanglewood and other festivals in the Berkshires. Click here for a list of them.

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