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Handel, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato: Gerard Schwarz, cond., Mark Morris, choreographer, Adrianne Lobel, set designer, Christine Van Loon, costume designer, James F. Ingalls, lighting designer, Christine Brandes and Lisa Saffer, sopranos, John McVeigh, tenor, James Maddalena, baritone, Seattle Symphony and Chorale, Mark Morris Dance Group, Paramount Theater, Seattle, 18.5.2008 (BJ)

The pastoral ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato was composed early in 1740, the year before Messiah. It is, at a modest computation, one of perhaps twenty or thirty Handel works that both for freshness and for profundity rival or even surpass that perennial favorite, whose sheer ubiquity has unfairly overshadowed the rest of the composer’s output in the public mind.

Mark Morris’s danced version, created in 1988 when the choreographer was director of dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, has now made a return appearance in Morris’s home city, and this production, presented in partnership with the Seattle Symphony under its music director, Gerard Schwarz, takes its place as probably the most enchanting combination of music and dance I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. Too often, such choreographed versions of existing scores have the effect of distracting from, rather than enhancing, the music, but Morris’s inspired invention heightened the beauty and expressivity of everything it touched. Abetted by a company of 24 dancers, without exception seemingly flawless in technique and fetching of appearance and demeanor, he captured in movement all the majesty, picturesqueness, and deep feeling of Milton’s poems and Handel’s setting, as well as many touches of the wit that was decidedly not a Miltonic characteristic but that Handel possessed in abundance. Morris does more with his dancers’ hands and arms than most choreographers, evoking comparison with certain styles of Indian dance. Perhaps the crowning moment was his interpretation of the soprano-tenor duet As steals the morn–itself one of Handel’s supreme inspirations–as a lithe processional with interweaving files of walking dancers. But the entire collaborative work was impeccable in taste and feeling, as well as tellingly varied in its matching of the music’s pace and tone.

The performance took place, not in the contemporary environment of Benaroya Hall where the Symphony usually plays, but in the appropriately ornate and handsome 80-year-old Paramount Theater. Here Adrianne Lobel’s brilliantly simple set of scrims in various solid colors, rising and falling in harmony with the changing expression of the music, Christine Van Loon’s equally simple and beautiful costumes, and James F. Ingalls’s subtle lighting all contributed to the perfection of the whole. The resultant effect of Milton-Handel-Morris (not forgetting the accomplished work Gerard Schwarz drew from his singers and players) suggested that whereas Handel, in his translation of the English words into the language of music, might be said to have digitized Milton’s text, Morris’s realization of Milton-Handel on stage magically restored the airy web of words and music to the corporeal–or analog–sphere, enriching both elements in the process. It is great news that Schwarz’s orchestra and Morris’s dance group will be collaborating on a new production in each of the next few seasons. In 2008/09 it will be the turn of some of Mozart’s concerted piano works. I can’t wait.

Bernard Jacobson

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