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BWW Reviews: NYC Premiere of Mark Morris Dance Group ACIS AND GALATEA

The crown jewel of this year's Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center is Mark Morris Dance Group's new staging of ACIS AND GALATEA. The much-anticipated production, which had runs in Berkeley and Boston earlier this spring, made its New York premiere on Thursday evening.

Not only have I heard tenor Thomas Cooley, who sings the role of Acis in Morris' production, perform the role under the baton of Jane Glover. I have, in fact, worked on a production of ACIS myself, and have heard practically every recording of the piece that's out there.

Needless to say, my level of expectation for any production of this piece is extremely high. But, with Morris as the impresario, I knew the production would be unforgettable.

I must admit that at the beginning of the opera, I was a tad worried that Morris' choreography would be derivative of the Wayne McGregor's 2009 production at the Royal Opera House, London.

As Yulia Van Doren sings Galatea's "birdsong" aria, "Hush ye pretty warbling choir," a dancer enters the playing space with birdlike movements, just as in the ROH production. After a few bars, though, you realize Morris has created something entirely his own. Rather than limit himself to a pair of love birds, as in McGregor's version, Morris populates the stage with an entire flock.

The talented dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Group peck and poke, flap and flutter. In this aria, Morris and his dancers created a vocabulary of movement playfully inspired by birds, but more colloquial and less balletic than that of McGregor.

The chuckles continued throughout the evening. But the show isn't all laughs. Morris balances every moment of humor with tenderness, all perfectly matched to the music.

For example, in Galatea's aria "As when the dove laments her love," the singer repeats the word "no" several times on the same pitch during one phrase. Morris transformed this simple musical gesture into a touching choreographic one. Each time Galatea sings "no," she playful hits her lover, ultimately pushing him to the ground - an intimate "no means yes" moment that the audience is allowed to voyeuristically enjoy.

More moving still was Cooley's solo performance of "Love in her eyes sits playing," which made me tear up within a few beats of the vocal entrance. Many singers have an incredible capacity for feeling, but it is quite another to externalize those feelings, and on top of it, to make yourself vulnerable to thousands of strangers! Cooley's deep capacity for feeling and his unique ability to express those feelings so immediately are true gifts.

Douglas Williams was a charming Polyphemus, the cyclopes who comes between Acis and Galatea. His entrance at the top of Act II is amazingly clever. I won't spoil it for you - though clearly Morris and the dancers had fun while working with Williams in the rehearsal room on this scene!

Williams' willingness to commit to choreography did not impede his technique. He sang with power and strength throughout his entire register, navigating the giant vocal leaps Handel wrote to represent the character's size with ease.

Since the character of Damon is not central to the love triangle, it is easy to overlook his arias. But, Isaiah Bell's beautiful tenor, command of the style, and natural stage presence made me hear Damon's music anew.

And, in some ways, I was hearing Handel anew, since Morris chose to use Mozart's arrangement of Handel's original score. While I have heard Mozart's arrangement years ago in recording, I never quite took to it.

But, like with any music, it's all in how you play it. Conductor Nicholas McGegan's reading of Mozart score was so convincing, that I'm now convinced of Mozart's arrangement.

McGegan began his career as flautist and recorded Mozart's symphonies with Christopher Hogwood. And, since the major differences between Handel's original score and Mozart's arrangement are in the woodwinds and brass, there's literally no one better to bring out these unique orchestral colors than McGegan.

I was totally swept up in the current during "Heart the seat of soft delight" and "Galatea dry thy tears," since McGegan so beautifully treated the water effects Handel scored for the winds.

The Philharmonia Baroque Chorale shined gloriously from the orchestra pit. Singing Handel's elegant five-part choruses can easily become a very inelegant affair. Unless every sixteenth note is exactly in place, the effect is rather like listening to a bag of potatoes rolling in a clothes dryer. The Chorale, however, sang with crystal clarity and emotional intensity.

This production of ACIS is so smart yet so accessible, that any one can enjoy it. Whether you've performed the piece yourself or have never seen an opera, there is something in it for everyone.

Information about upcoming performances during the 2014-15 season can be found at

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