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Mark Morris' brings vivid new choreography to Handel's 'Acis and Galatea'

Baritone Douglas Williams and the Mark Morris Dance Company in the East Coast premiere of 'Acis and Galatea' at the Shubert Theatre.
Baritone Douglas Williams and the Mark Morris Dance Company in the East Coast premiere of 'Acis and Galatea' at the Shubert Theatre.

'Acis and Galatea'


"Acis and Galatea," as presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, is quite an impressive display of artistic talents. The music itself is some of Handel's most captivating, but, in its original form, does not translate well to the stage. The sparse orchestration of "Acis and Galatea" was intended for a more private, salon setting; Mozart's judicious re-orchestration augmented the size and power of the ensemble to better suit the stage, while adding warm-toned instruments, such as clarinet, horn, and bassoon, accentuating the pastoral glow of Handel's score.

Mark Morris Dance Company dancers Michelle Yard and Domingo Estrada the East Coast premiere of 'Acis and Galatea'.
Robert Torres

The first act of "Acis and Galatea" is an untempered homage to love and mirth. The frolicking of the Mark Morris Dance Group's nimble dancers conjured the "happy nymphs and happy swains" of John Gay's libretto to perfection. Clad in sheer, flowing skirts and dresses, the dancers navigated the stage with a weightless elegance. The choreography cleverly mirrored the music, sometimes spiraling into a gleeful whir, while at others mimicking the tapering repetition of the chorus' canonic singing. Morris' choreography was exceptional in its ability to imitate musical forms, but also evoke the idyllic images of Gay's libretto in ways that are graceful, fresh, and fluid.

The singers got the short end of the stick during Act I. Unlike the light, florid garments of the dancers, the singers wore stiff, unbecoming costumes. The only consistency was in the color palette of the costumes, making the singers visually static as well as incongruous next to the sprightly dancers. This visual incongruity was heightened by the clumsy incorporation of the singers amid the painstakingly well-choreographed dancing. Until Act II, the stage was a platform for the dancers and singers were relegated to the background.

Fortunately, staging issues left the singers' vocal performances unhampered and Handel's exquisite music reached full fruition. Thomas Cooley (Acis) and Sherezade Panthaki (Galatea) brought great technical skill and musicality to the title roles. Cooley nuanced the repetitive verses to maximal effect and his warm tenor proved pliable and expressive. Panthaki possessed a focused, shimmering tone. In Galatea's "Must I My Acis Still Bemoan," Panthaki stood alone on the pitch-black stage in opera's only still moment; yet the stark visual contrast was touchingly simple and Panthaki's penetrating voice held the audience rapt.

All the balance issues between the singers and dancers were harmonized masterfully in the second act. Baritone Douglas Williams, in the role of the lusty Polyphemus, constantly engaged the dancers in a fittingly gruff, yet also comic manner. Williams filled the house with a handsome, sturdy tone and carried Polyphemus' furious melismas with passion and dexterity. Zach Finkelstein (Damon) possessed a refreshingly bright timbre that contrasted the cast's mellower male voices nicely.

The musical and visual variety of Act II gave it significantly more vitality than the monochromatic first act. The emphasis on red as more than a fleeting accent and the darkness of Galatea's "Must I My Acis Still Bemoan" gave the audience a much needed break from the endless greenery. Act II also contains some exciting musical moments: the introduction of the baritone, a stunning trio, and an emotional variety that is lacking in Act I.

Nicholas McGegan led the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus and Period Instrument Orchestra in a jubilant performance."Acis" lacks the dramatic gusto to be a major contender on the stage, but the effervescent music and Morris' depictive though at times restless, choreography made for a night of vivid entertainment.

Performances of "Acis and Galatea" will continue through Sunday, May 18 at the Shubert Theatre.