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Handel, ‘L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato’ Mark Morris Dance Group, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, New York State Theater, August 15th. (ME)

‘The Performance itself ( the Musick as well as the Poetry) is noble and elevated, well devis’d, and of great Propriety. The Musician and the Poet walk Hand in Hand, and seem to vie which shall better express that beautiful Contrast of Mirth and Melancholy...’ so wrote the ‘London Daily Post’ in April 1741, and these remarks might equally well be applied to the ‘Mostly Mozart’ debut performances of the Mark Morris group’s piece, combining Handel’s music with the words of Milton and Jennens, and drawing upon Blake’s watercolour illustrations for inspiration. First seen at La Monnaie in Brussels and performed at London’s English National Opera in 1996, this colourful, joyous celebration of poetry and movement was the perfect introduction to Dance as far as this Festival was concerned, the only surprise being that this really was the first presentation of a dance-based work at Mostly Mozart.

I’ve commented previously upon the audiences here, and have to do so again; maybe I just had bad luck twice, but on this occasion things were even worse, with so much loud, unguarded coughing, so much getting up whenever people felt like it, and so much chit-chat (usually saved up for when the tenor sang – well, he’s one of those Brits, after all, so he doesn’t matter…) that I spent quite some time open-mouthed in astonishment. If dance is something to occupy the eyes whilst music is being played, then the section of the house where I was sitting was mostly oblivious to the music, being solely interested in the eye-candy, which was not at all Morris’ intention. As he told me during an interview today, if the work had not presented a synthesis of music, poetry and movement, he would never have been interested in developing it. Perhaps it was the more forceful nature of the soloists this time as much as the different audience attitude, but when I saw the work in London I was not so conscious of a feeling that the singers were sometimes accompanying extras rather than integral parts of the work.

‘L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato’ was Handel’s first work set to a text by Milton, and was first heard in London in 1740, with additions and modifications by Charles Jennens, who some years later provided parts of the text for ‘Messiah.’ The general idea has a narrative drift, in that both excess of Mirth and Melancholy are considered and found wanting in contrast to the ‘intellectual day’ of moderation – a notion likely to find much favour with 18th century urban man in particular – but the work is largely episodic in style and thus ideal for interpretation in terms of dance. Morris sets each episode in fairly literal terms, in that hunting scenes show dancers impersonating dogs, avian ones birds and so on, but that’s not really the point; what makes his work extraordinary is the sheer joy of it all, the exuberance of the highly trained body giving expression to that which words alone, or indeed music alone, cannot.

In ‘Four Quartets,’ a work close to Morris’ heart, Eliot refers to ‘Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all/ But you are the music, while the music lasts’ and it seems to me that that this is where we are going with ‘L’Allegro…’ in that the pastel-coloured, fluidly costumed forms before us do not merely echo the words and music but draw out of us as they move, reactions of spontaneous joy or sadness which are related as much to our own selves as they are to the more expected appreciation of sound, colour and so on. It’s also a work which can be appreciated on many levels; there were plenty of oohs and aahs in reaction to certain episodes such as the single dancer moving with hummingbird-like intensity in the ‘Populous Cities’ section and the classically lovely structure of the stage picture presented at ‘As steals the morn,’ but for those who are experiencing it for the second or third time so many more resonances are apparent; for me, on this occasion, much of the movement took me back to Blake’s watercolours as well as to classical images such as the Three Graces and Nine Muses, none of which, of course, is accidental, since Morris is as intensely versed in the classics as he is in the musical elements of the works he sets.

Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra were again in the pit; the collaboration of Morris and McGegan has long been a fruitful one, and the orchestra provided playing of exquisite balance, lightness and grace. What I love about this orchestra and conductor is the absence of preciousness and pretension; the slightly more rustic feel you naturally get with baroque instruments is there, but it’s not presented as an antique flavour, and they made the music sound as fresh as if it had just been written. The four soloists were an interesting mix, from the eminent lyric tenor John Mark Ainsley to the new – to me – this season baritone Philip Cutlip (and how delightfully overblown the latter’s résumé is, with an entire page given over to listing just about every appearance he’s ever made in the U.S. – Ainsley’s, by contrast, devotes just one short paragraph to his stellar international career and vast discography; well, that’s British understatement for you…) with the two sopranos somewhere in between.

As with her performance in ‘Gloria’ on Sunday, I felt that I was not hearing Dominique Labelle at her best; there was a little strain during her ‘Penseroso’ passages, although I also found her singing very touching in the quieter, more lyrical moments. Her diction is excellent, and she really made her words tell; the same cannot be said for Christine Brandes, whose thrillingly dramatic voice needs a little more scaling down for this music, but who performed with great presence and commitment. Philip Cutlip’s baritone is warm, well focussed and artfully used, and his singing was mostly characterful, whether in moments of introspection or bluster; it’s not yet a great voice, but there’s plenty of potential there, and I especially enjoyed his final section.

The tenor has the lion’s share of the singing in this work, so it was hardly surprising that the part was entrusted to Ainsley, but on this occasion I found his singing a little muted at times; it’s not like him to neglect to pinpoint the differences between frolicking and f****** inherent in certain passages, but here I felt he was at times rather reticent in terms of expressiveness, although he sang ‘Haste thee nymph’ and ‘I’ll to the well – trod stage’ with his customary tonal beauty and unembarrassed candour. Perhaps it’s in the nature of a tenor to prefer being on the stage to being in the pit, or maybe I just sensed that he was being rather under-used in this particular context, but no one else seemed to think so, one lady to my right going so far as to greet his ornate passages in ‘Far from all resort of Mirth’ with a loud ‘Wowee…’ – now that’s something you don’t often get at the ENO.

The cast and orchestra were given a genuinely rapturous ovation, with particular adulation for Morris, who seemed truly delighted with how the work had been received; he recently said that part of the reason why one stands up during the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus is because you can’t ascend to Heaven on the spot, and I’m sure that’s how most of the audience felt after this performance.

Melanie Eskenazi

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