A quarter of a century ago, Mark Morris made a dance out of Handel’s oratorio “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” Now he’s taken on the Handel opera “Acis and Galatea,” the composer’s most popular work during his lifetime. This new piece, which the Celebrity Series co-commissioned and is presenting at the Shubert Theatre, offers few fresh ideas from Morris. But it’s light and pleasing, and his hop-skip-and-jump choreography is as well suited to Ovid’s pastoral tale as it was to Milton’s.
The Sicilian-set story is a simple one. In the first act, the chorus sings of how “Happy nymphs and happy swains! / Harmless, merry, free and gay, / dance and sport the hours away” before shepherd Acis and sea nymph Galatea pledge their love. In the second, an unwanted suitor for Galatea arrives, the monstrous Cyclops Polyphemus, personifying the volcanic Mount Etna, nature’s darker side. When Acis tries to defend Galatea, Polyphemus buries him under a rock. Galatea, mourning, turns her beloved into a “gentle murm’ring stream, / shepherds’ pleasure, muses’ theme.”
The colors of this “Acis and Galatea,” which premiered last month at Cal Performances in Berkeley, are decidedly Mediterranean. Adrianne Lobel, who did the sets for “L’Allegro,” has devised abstractly forestlike painted backdrops on which Michael Chybowski rings nuanced lighting changes. Isaac Mizrahi, also a longtime Morris collaborator, has outfitted the dancers in swirling chiffon dresses and skirts of mottled yellow, green, and brown that suggest the libretto’s “verdant plains and woody mountains.”
At the Shubert, the four vocal soloists join the dancers onstage, with the Handel and Haydn Period Orchestra and Chorus and conductor Nicholas McGegan in the pit. Morris is not using Handel’s own orchestration but rather Mozart’s 1788 “update.” He has argued that this more colorful arrangement, with its added bassoon and pairs of flutes, clarinets, and horns, “swings in a way that Handel’s doesn’t,” but it does not trip as easily as Handel intended, or with the same sense of gentle pastoral parody.
The libretto, by John Gay with Alexander Pope and John Hughes, was translated into German for Mozart’s Viennese audience. Morris’s version is, sensibly, being sung in the original English. On Thursday evening, however, the witty text was barely intelligible from the singers, despite what appeared to be conscientious efforts to enunciate, and even less legible on the supertitles overhead. The chorus was ravishing, particularly in the threnody “Mourn, all ye muses!,” but McGegan’s phrasing was square, the Musette (from Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 6) that opened act two seemed heavy-handed, and the orchestra overall sounded oddly murky.
Pawing and groping the dancers, both male and female, as they pass by, Douglas Williams’s Polyphemus is the most playful, and characterful, of the soloists. Thomas Cooley and Sherezade Panthaki are earnest, strong-voiced, and a bit stolid as Acis and Galatea; Zach Finkelstein is sweet but bland as Acis’s shepherd friend Damon. Mizrahi’s outfits, so enticing on the dancers, do the singers no favors; Acis and Damon seem to be wearing camouflage pajamas.
Morris’s choreography, as always, tends to illustrate the music rather than illuminate it. Here he does not stretch your imagination in the way that Wayne McGregor’s 2009 “Acis and Galatea” did at the Royal Opera House, with Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson, in bodystockings, graphically entwining themselves about each other. He keeps to the comfortable confines of the text while remaining alert to its word-setting possibilities.
No individual dancers are assigned to double the solo vocalists; this is an ensemble piece about community and healing. The dancers — the women in those chiffon dresses, the men bare-chested and in chiffon skirts — run onstage as if they had just left a classical frieze or vase, their arms upraised in invocation and imprecation. They lilt, they loll, they gambol like spring lambs, they gather for country dances. They offer themselves to the gods, or the universe. At the words “See, how thy flocks in yonder valley stray,” they make like straying sheep; later, eight marching men form a line to protect Acis from Polyphemus, but when the Cyclops glares at them, they sidestep sheepishly offstage.
Throughout, Morris teases ballet conventions, and that helps keep his motivic gestures and thematic patterns from becoming rote and repetitive over the evening’s two hours (including a 20-minute intermission). In fact, I wish he had stuck with Handel’s orchestration — Mozart seems too heavy for this choreography — and teased just a little more.