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Review: Mark Morris Presents Two Operas at BAM

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, March 17, 2017

Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas has been widely accepted as a masterpiece since it opened in 1989, and his recent mounting of Britten’s Curlew River was hailed as a transformative production of “one of the greatest works of all music-drama,” both before and after its premiere at Tanglewood in 2013, where it was paired with Dido. That same double-bill opened at BAM this past Wednesday, to sustained ovations from a packed house.

Mine will probably be a minority report.

Curlew River is one of Britten’s spare, concentrated later pieces, a “parable for church performance” after the medieval Japanese Nōh play Sumidagawa. The plot is simple: a grieving mother, driven mad by the sudden disappearance of her young son, comes by accident to his tomb, which the local country-people have come to treat as a shrine; as she prays for her son’s soul, his spirit appears and blesses her, promising that the dead shall rise again, and that they will meet in Heaven. This is cloaked within a sort of mystery-play put on by a group of monks in a country church in early medieval times, set off by liturgical processionals and chant. As in Nōh, the cast is all male: the Madwoman is played by one of the monks, who puts on woman’s costume and a shite-like mask for the play-within-the-play.

Morris swept all of this away, to no clear purpose, opting instead for a swanky all-white design, an Abercrombie-ready young cast (no masks), and an added layer of Japonaiserie featuring origami birds and boats, a twirling paper parasol, and an incongruously campy street-dance that replaced one of the principal liturgical framing-devices.

This might have worked, in a faux-naïf kind of way, if the essentials had been taken care of, but they weren’t: the talky, convoluted libretto was beautifully voiced, but not one word in twenty could be understood, and the staging undercut or contradicted the rare moments of clarity. Douglas Williams did a nice job with the Ferryman’s all-important narrative, for example, but he had to do it while standing on top of what would obviously become the lost child’s coffin later in the show, and he didn’t pole the boat, making nonsense of Britten’s explicit instrumental sound-effects. In the same scene, Isaiah Bell’s Madwoman dozed conspicuously, and then woke up with detailed knowledge of everything that had been said while she was asleep; later, standing bolt upright at the head of another processional, she said, “Here, on the ground, all I can do is weep,” her face immobile, her manner impassive. Conor McDonald, as the Traveller, sang beautifully, and for the most part clearly, while playing a recognizable human being with genuine feeling, but even he couldn’t make sense of choreography that asked him to walk like an old man with a stick one moment and skip like a goat the next, for no apparent reason.

Mark Morris Dance Group in 'Dido and Aeneas;' photo: Nan Melville.

Mark Morris Dance Group in ‘Dido and Aeneas;’ photo: Nan Melville.

Where Curlew River was all solemn abstraction, Dido was minutely patterned and relentlessly literal. Purcell’s opera took place in the pit, singers and all, while onstage Morris’s ballet marked every downbeat and accent, and mimed every concrete noun, verb, adjective, and adverb, and if Purcell repeated a phrase, Morris repeated the accompanying choreography without the slightest deviation. This was interesting, even charming, at first, but it began to feel unnatural and undynamic as Dido’s tragedy gathered around her. In the end, the only moments that carried any spontaneous emotional charge—the opening of Act Three, with Dido and Aeneas entwined, Aeneas’s tortured solo, and parts of the Witches’ conniving—were the ones where the dancers moved through, or independent of, the beat.

As in Curlew River, Morris ignored pictorial elements embedded in the music, most notably the echo-effects in Act Two, while adding attention-grabbing visuals—a bit of masturbation for the Sorceress, a dick-joke for Aeneas—that seemed platitudinous and led nowhere. And surely we’ve gotten past the point where a couple of boys kissing each other is a valid metaphor for Ultimate Evil.

Musical balances were a problem all night: Britten’s delicate chamber-ensemble, even placed far upstage, tended to overpower individual singers, while the soloists and chorus in Dido took on a brassy tone in the pit; and two moments that ought to have been quietly magical—the spirit-child’s nearly-inaudible emergence from the chorus of pilgrims, and Dido’s final “Remember me!”—blazed forth like Valkyrie-cries. It was a shame: Morris himself conducted a lively account of the Purcell, and the MMDG Ensemble played the Britten with sensitivity and a broad range of color, but somehow the whole sound-picture seemed out of control. The magnificent Stephanie Blythe was luxury-casting, doubling Dido and the Sorceress, but only Douglas Williams, who sang both the Ferryman in Curlew River and Aeneas, seemed to have the measure of the room; he walked away with the evening’s vocal honors.


Mark Morris: Two OperasAn Evening of Britten and Purcell presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, on March 15-19, 2017. Mark Morris Dance Group and MMDG Music Ensemble, Artistic Director Mark Morris.

Curlew River by Benjamin Britten (NY premiere)
MMDG Music Ensemble directed by Mark Morris; set and costume design by Allen Moyer. Cast: Isaiah Bell (Madwoman); Clinton Curtis (Leader/Abbot); Conor McDonald (Traveler); Daniel Moody (Boy/Acolyte); Douglas Williams (Ferryman).

Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell
Mark Morris Dance Group; MMDG Music Ensemble; Choreography by Mark Morris; Conducted by Mark Morris. Cast: Stephanie Blythe (Dido; the Sorceress); Laurel Lynch (dancer/Dido and the Sorceress); Douglas Williams (Aeneas); Domingo Estrada, Jr. (dancer/Aeneas).


Cover: (l. to r.) Alex Stopp and Isaiah Bell in ‘Curlew River;’ photo:Nan Melville


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