BERKELEY — Acis, a shepherd, and Galatea, a nymph, are in love. The jealous giant Polyphemus brains Acis. Galatea uses her divine powers to restore her slain swain into a fountain, gently purring eternal love.
Unlike Handel’s many operas and oratorios, his “Acis and Galatea,” a pastoral masque taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” offers no opportunity for character development. But it has such fetching music that it was the composer’s biggest hit during his lifetime.
Handel made several versions of the score and Mozart and Mendelssohn later added their own enhancements. Benjamin Britten was a fan, and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, was Acis to Joan Sutherland’s Galatea in a dashingly operatic 1960 recording that helped put the masque’s music into wide modern circulation.
Still the theatrical slightness of “Acis” has meant it has never gotten much respect on stage.
But “Acis” happens to be a masque made for dance. Choreographer Wayne McGregor tried it with a heavy hand and moderate success five years ago at the Royal Opera in London. Friday night Mark Morris unveiled a new production with his dance company in Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It will be fabulous,” the typically tactless Morris told the San Francisco Chronicle while tackily delighting in dissing current fashionably tacky Handel opera productions. True to his word, Morris’ “Acis” is not fashionable. It is not tawdry. It lacks violence, sex and (with the exception of the pinching Polyphemus) substantial sadomasochism. It honors classical beauty.
And, yes, Morris’ “Acis” is, indeed, fabulous. Collaborating with conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Bay Area period instrument band Philharmonia Baroque, the work’s small musical pleasures become, though movement, wondrously grand.
Curiously, “Acis” is a kind of sylvan follow-up to Morris’ version of “Rite of Spring,” which had its premiere here last spring, thanks once again to UC Berkeley’s impressively ambitious Cal Performances. Rather than re-create a vicious Russian sacrificial rite, Morris’ “Spring, Spring, Spring” is a celebration of nymphs and bare-chested satyrs joyfully coupling to a jazz version of the Stravinsky score.
In “Acis,” Morris uses Mozart’s jazzed-up Handel orchestrations, which colorize the orchestra with clarinets and bassoons, along with a thicker string section, creating a rich, florid, Mozartean sound. The look is florid, as well. Adrianne Lobel’s scenic designs are abstractly painted flats with Matisse-like colors. Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes put dancers of both sexes in sheer floral skirts. The men once more are bare-chested.
“Acis” isn’t pure dance. Acis (tenor Thomas Cooley), Galatea (soprano Sherezade Panthaki), Acis’ friend Damon (tenor Zach Finkelstein) and Polyphemus (bass-baritone Douglas Williams) are part of the action. But with the exception of the funny Polyphemus, these are not the most compelling people on stage. A chamber chorus is kept out of the way in the pit.
Although Morris invents little that is new here, he has a way with Baroque music in general and with Handel in particular. The choreographer’s first great work was a dance set to Handel’s pastoral ode “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato” in 1988 (which also had designs by Lobel). More than a quarter century later, he is up to some of the same tricks. If sheep are alluded to, the dancers become amusing sheep. A melodic line leaps; a dancer leaps. One gesture might be from classical, the next, modern. Partnering is every which way.
Yet in this “Acis,” every movement looks new because it is newly made to meet the music. More than that, Morris’ patterns have the power to make you hear the music the way he wants you to, and that is never predictable.
The drama — which has a libretto by John Gay with some additions by Alexander Pop and John Hughes — goes from happy to sad to celebratory. The happy is, in Morris’ hands, goofy happy. The chorus sings of dancing the hours away, free and gay, and so the dancers do. “Happy we,” Acis and Galatea announce, bouncing in bliss.
When the chorus warns the “happy we” of fate’s sad decree, a funereal pallor of startling solemnity takes hold. Mozart’s orchestration anticipates his Requiem, and Morris creates a stage picture of funereal eloquence. Polyphemus’ gauche groping is campy, but Galatea’s grief is real.
Part of the enormous pleasure of this production is in the effusively engaging conducting of McGegan and his fine period instrument orchestra and chorus. But it has long been known that Mozart doesn’t work in Zellerbach, a large and dry theater. The first opera in the hall, 45 years ago, was the U.S. premiere of Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” and the opera did not catch on this country as quickly as it should because the acoustics made it sound dull.
But Morris’ choreography functions as a kind of ear training. “Acis and Galatea” has never, in my experience, sounded better anywhere than it did Friday night.
Morris’ production moves on to Boston next month and then Lincoln Center’ Mostly Mozart Festival in August. Neither town is offering a venue with better acoustics than at Berkeley. It won’t matter. Morris’ “Acis” is for keeps.