An Aesthetic Festival

Review of Acis and Galatea at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

George Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a light opera and, in Mozart’s arrangement of the piece, full of serene pizazz. It’s hummable and bright, with only a handful of roles: Galatea, a nymph who wants to find love because, y’know, it’s spring; Acis, a shepherd in pursuit of her because of the force of nature; and Damon, Acis’ friend who suspects things may not go well. Mortals seeking immortals for permanent relations is not a good prospect. Then, in the second half, there’s Polyphemus, a lecherous monster who seems to expect all comers to yield to his pleasure, and who takes a shine to Galatea, with tragic results. Thereafter comes an apotheosis.

As a musical piece, with Nicholas McGegan conducting the International Festival of Arts & Ideas Chamber Orchestra and Yale Choral Artists, Handel’s short opera is diverting enough, lacking the grandeur and comic touches of Italian opera, but full of charm. As staged by Mark Morris and his dance troupe, Acis and Galatea is a pageant of color, movement, spirit, wit and wonder. A total of 18 dancers cavort about the stage, interpreting the action, reacting to it, creating quick riffs and flings and flourishes, as though musical phrases had taken human shape. As they say, there’s never a dull moment.

The dancers’ costumes, by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, consist of a unisex floral skirt of incredibly billowy fabric that creates wonderful undulations in Michael Chybowski’s lighting design, and, for the women, matching sleeveless tops. The males dancers are bare from the waist up. The costuming underscores the fact that both males and females are performing the exact same dance movements, though maybe the women do get lifted up a bit more. Still, Morris has cunningly devised dances that let male and female merge in the spirit of corporeal celebration. These are bodies that float like bubbles.

In the second half, when things get a bit more sinister, what with Polyphemus (Alexander Dobson) groping male and female dancers indiscriminately and lusting after Galatea, there’s a fascinating solo routine danced first by a female then a male dancer. Both have great suppleness and grace, and the female dancer’s angular proportions put me in mind of a Puvis de Chauvannes figure, which seemed a modernist touch quite at home against the huge painted backdrops by Adrienne Lobel, some of which seem to echo landscapes by the Fauves, albeit with toned-down color. Which is a way of saying that this Acis and Galatea is an aesthetic feast from first to last.

Yulia Van Doren (Galatea), second from left
Yulia Van Doren (Galatea), second from left

The singers get into the act as well. This is no “stand there and sing it” performance. When’s the last time you saw an opera singer run on or off stage? Or lie down while singing? There is plenty of movement and interaction with the dancers, and the costumes for the shepherds Acis (Thomas Cooley) and Damon (Isaiah Bell) suit contemporary working guys looking to dude it up casual, while Galatea (Yulia Van Doren) is gowned to do a night on the town with a skirt that’s made to swirl. Polyphemus looks a dapper, Mephistophelean gent, with his long hair, beard, and a suit that seems cut from a painting. The acting and singing are often played for laughs, as in breath-catching pauses in the midst of Cooley’s and Bell’s arpeggios. As randy Polyphemus, Dobson is a crowd-pleaser, getting surprising profundity from his slight frame. Dobson’s Galatea is a delight—light on her feet, and soulful and endearing in her solos.

Thomas Cooley (Acis), Yulia Van Doren (Galatea)
Thomas Cooley (Acis), Yulia Van Doren (Galatea)

Mark Morris knows how to play to audiences who want their high culture fun, and Acis and Galatea is an appealing show. Its pastoral aspects celebrate the turn to full summer and, without overdoing it, set true love against mere lustful thrills. The opera’s lyrics, by John Gay with help from Alexander Pope and John Hughes, flaunt the pastoral’s romance of nature with classical appreciation. With Morris, we're never in the wilds or even in Arcadia, but rather a zesty world of comic lust, everyday love pangs, and celebratory pageantry, tricked out with consummate artistry.

Acis and Galatea suits well the festival atmosphere of Arts & Ideas. It’s swift and sure and passes like a dream.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Acis and Galatea
Mark Morris Dance Group

Music by George Frideric Handel, arr. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by John Gay, with Alexander Pope and John Hughes

Nicholas McGegan: Conductor
Mark Morris: Director and choreographer

Set Design: Adrianne Lobel; Isaac Mizrahi: Costume Design; Michael Chybowski: Lighting Design

Cast: Yulia Van Doren (Galatea); Thomas Cooley (Acis); Isaiah Bell (Damon); Alexander Dobson (Polyphemus)

Chelsea Acree, Sam Black, Max Cappelli-King, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Brian Lawson, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel, Michelle Yard

International Festival of Arts & Ideas Chamber Orchestra
Jacob Ashworth, director

Yale Choral Artists
Jeffrey Douma, director

Shubert Theater, June 18 & 19, 2015