Mark Morris’ Cal Performance presentation and world premiere of Handel’s Acis and Galatea runs April 25-27

Musical morsels become masterpieces in the hands of composers like George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Spring forward 200-plus-odd years and find dance and design have their modern day monument builders as well.

When choreographer Mark Morris and designers Isaac Mizrahi (costumes) Adrianne Lobel (sets) and Michael Chybowski (lighting) unleash their collective talents in a Cal Performances presentation and world premiere of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, arranged by Mozart, you might think there’s no cause for frosting on the proverbial cake.

But buttercream aside, there’s more: the Mark Morris Dance Group will be joined by the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale and guest soloists Sherezade Panthaki (soprano), Thomas Cooley (tenor), Zach Finkelstein (tenor), and Douglas Williams (bass-baritone). Conductor Nicholas McGegan will lead the musicians, rounding out the star-studded team. And that’s not even mentioning Morris’ uniquely and collectively talented dancers.

In sum, the originally tiny work, written in chamber form in 1718, is likely to be a grand, sensory explosion of sight, sound and movement, during three performances at Zellerbach Hall, April 25-27.

Chelsea Lynn Acree, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, and Maile Okamura in xxx. Photo: Ken Friedman
Chelsea Lynn Acree, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, and Maile Okamura in Acis and Galatea. Photo: Ken Friedman

Of course, Handel tinkered long ago, with his most popular pastoral opera; adapting it into three acts, then crafting a two-act version with an English text written by John Gay in 1739. Considered one of Handel’s more expressive works, program notes by Morris deliver the synopsis with welcome brevity, in six, graceful, lines:

Acis is in love with Galatea.
The monster, Polyphemus, also loves her.
In a jealous rage, and spurned by Galatea,
Polyphemus hurls a boulder at Acis and mortally wounds him.
Galatea uses her magic powers to change her dead lover
into a stream that will flow eternally.

Mozart picked up the piece in 1788, updating it for his 18th century audience by adding orchestration (second violin, woodwind, viola, and bassoon parts and re-writing oboe solos for clarinet), writing out the recitatives, and setting it in German. The Berkeley performances will be sung in English and Morris says in an email interview that the “slightly bigger sound is perfect for the size of the theaters we’ll perform in.” More importantly, he promises Mozart’s version will fall into an essential category: “All good music swings!”

Morris said this is a project he’s wanted to do for years. Collecting presenters was just one step in producing the opera. (Cal Performances and other commissioning partners are listed on the project’s website.)

Assembling the team of artists, embarking on the choreography with the dancers — Morris can’t recall when he first heard the music. Nor does he want to. Responding in characteristic, blunt language that makes clear the direction he prefers, he says, “I have no idea when I first heard the piece. Long, long ago. But I certainly don’t want to go back in time. I want an audience to watch and listen without prejudice and as if for the first time. That’s a lot to ask!”

Except that it’s not difficult to relinquish preconceived notions when the work’s Baroque-style aural intonations and orchestrations become a spiraling torso or quartets of dancers crisscrossing the stage. Dancers bring added dimension, capturing a repeating instrumental motif with an uplifted arm or the sweep of a chorus by charging as an ensemble across the stage.

Morris said months of preparation and “close reading” of the score and libretto — often results in unexpected gifts. “I am always surprised by something: even in a simple piece of music that I’ve known for years and especially in bigger forms. Opera for example.” Within Acis and Galatea, he discovered more variety than he’d gleaned from previous listening. “The marvelous and colorful word painting. The humor and compassion built into the specific characters’ tunes,” he said, were most notable.

Beyond the simple pleasure of listening to Philharmonia Baroque’s select troupe of musicians perform on historically accurate instruments and noticing how Morris’ earthy, immeasurably watchable dancers enrich and extend the singing of a talented quartet of soloists, Berkeley audiences might enjoy knowing two of their own are participating. Two longtime MMDG members, Sam Black and Dallas McMurray, are former students of El Cerrito-based teacher Katie Maltsberger.

The MMDG residency includes an inter-generational community class (free, but RSVP’s are now full) and an artist talk on Sunday, April 27 at 1-2 pm in the Zellerbach Playhouse with Morris and Ara Guzelimian, Dean and Provost of The Juilliard School.

Watch Morris discussing Acis and Galatea in the Cal Performances video below:

YouTube video

Visit Cal Performances online for information, and to buy tickets.

Want to promote your local event to Berkeleyside’s thousands of readers? Simply post it to Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. It’s self-serve and free!