First, I just want to crow about the fact that I spotted the baritone Douglas Williams nearly a year ago, when he appeared briefly on the multi-faceted Ojai North! program dreamed up by that year’s artistic director, Mark Morris. In a public conversation I had with Morris that fell on the final day of the three-day event, I remember singling out the young baritone as one of the festival’s great discoveries.
And now, with Williams’s triumphant appearance in Morris’s new Acis and Galatea, which premiered this past weekend at Cal Performances, I am proven more correct than I ever could have imagined. His voice, his charisma, his grace and wit and grandeur onstage, are all of a piece. If Williams is not the very best thing about the production, that is only because there are so many good things in it to celebrate.
For this voyage into directing and choreographing a Handel opera, Mark Morris has chosen uniquely able collaborators; Mozart, first of all, who orchestrated the Handel and gave it not only a richer musical texture, but also a more accessible pathos; Nicholas McGegan, who conducted his terrific Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra so as to bring out every nuance of the Mozart/Handel mix; Adrienne Lobel, creator of the evocative yet simple sets; Michael Chybowski, Morris’s brilliant lighting designer; and Isaac Mizrahi, who did the splendid costumes. Each of these people was working at his or her highest level for this production, as were the eighteen Mark Morris dancers who performed (in varying sets of one to sixteen) in almost every minute of the program. This was not so much an opera with dance as a danced opera, with movement doing as much to express the content of the text as the singing itself did. As with Morris’s other evening-length vocal works—the oratorio L’Allegro comes instantly to mind, and so do the operas Platée and King Arthur—the experience of listening to wonderful music and watching delightful dance was seamless and satisfying. It was a nearly perfect production.
The problem lay in the onstage performances of the two leads, Acis (sung by tenor Thomas Cooley) and Galatea (sung by soprano Sherezade Panthaki). They both have fine voices. But I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that these singers had the movement quality of tree stumps. Rarely since the heyday of Lotfi Mansouri’s reign at the San Francisco Opera have I witnessed opera singers who had so little dramatic ability or so little capacity to move their bodies in a natural, human way. Watching them, I wondered why Morris, if he wanted these particular voices, hadn’t simply chosen to put them in the pit, replacing them onstage with dancers who could perform the two romantic roles—Sam Black and Jenn Weddel, say, or Billy Smith and Laurel Lynch, or Noah Vinson and Maile Okamura, or for that matter any of the pairs from his superb existing company.
That’s what I thought during the first act. And then, when Douglas Williams came on in the second act and masterfully embodied the role of the monster Polyphemus, I understood. This is what Morris was after. This merging of singer and dancers, movement and song, was essential to his version of the opera. It brought everything to a new level—emotionally, aesthetically, visually, musically. What Williams proved was that the choreographer’s ambitious vision was actually possible: it was something real, something reachable, and there was a point in trying for it. I hope Mark Morris can eventually find other lead singers who are able to attain that Williamsesque level of performance. Then perfection awaits us.