The two operas directed by Mark Morris that appeared at BAM last weekend were as different from each other as they could be, and yet each bore the mark (so to speak) of their choreographer-director. What this means, among other things, is that I cannot imagine a better production of either.
First up in the program was Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, an opera I had never seen before in this or any other form. Based on a Noh drama and using musical elements that seemed faintly Japanese-y, it is a strange yet affecting composition which (like so much of Britten’s work) seems to hinge on an evocation of the sound and feel of water. Unlike every other Morris-directed opera I’ve attended, this one did not employ the Mark Morris dancers; instead, the choreographer gave subtle, interesting movements to the all-male group of singers who populated the stage. He was particularly lucky in his choice of the main performer, the brilliant young tenor Isaiah Bell, who played the central part of the Madwoman with a gestural and vocal delicacy that made the whole opera come to life. But luck, of course, had very little to do with it. Morris has long had a good eye for new talent among singers, and here he had someone whose innate abilities combined with his own choreographic genius to produce a performance in which a man dressed as a man was entirely believable as a grieving mother.
Every decision Morris made here — keeping the instrumentalists onstage throughout, dressing the chorus and the main performers all in identical white shirts and trousers, using minimal sets, and having the “ghost child” who appears at the end not appear, but instead sing from offstage (in the voice of countertenor Daniel Moody)—worked to heighten the effect of this unusual Britten work. It was at once austere and moving, weird and familiar, and though its seventy minutes did not feel short, they all earned their keep.
Dido and Aeneas, which I have been watching steadily since a few years after its 1989 premiere, is in many ways the opposite of Curlew River. The dancers are onstage while the singers and musicians are in the pit (this time led by Morris himself, as conductor); the emotion is jagged and intense and sometimes even funny, and only occasionally (as at the end) beautifully austere; the performers are garbed all in black, not in white; and the music is Purcell’s melodious best, a far cry from the modernism of Britten. The piece may well be one of the greatest things Morris has ever done, and his fans never miss a chance to see it again. This time, with Stephanie Blythe singing the roles of Dido and Sorceress (and making them even more emotionally wrenching than they usually are), the music was outstanding—so gripping, indeed, that one almost wished one could see the singers (who also included the excellent baritone Douglas Williams and a host of other Morris regulars) as well as hearing them. But there was so much great dancing to watch onstage that perhaps we wouldn’t have had time to look at anything else.
I have to admit that I have trouble seeing anyone but Morris himself in the dual role of Dido and the Sorceress; he so inhabited that part, for so many years, that any later dancer risks looking like a replacement. A few of his successors (notably Amber Merkins and Bradon Macdonald) have been able to make the role their own with marvelous results, but otherwise the gap has been insurmountable. I found Laurel Lynch to be an able but not a compelling central figure; she possesses the grace and skill but not the power or charisma to take it over fully. But this had its plus sides, in that my eye for once was free to wander to the background, where I noticed, almost for the first time, how beautifully choreographed the rest of the company’s steps and gestures were. Lesley Garrison and Rita Donahue, as Dido’s two handmaidens, and Dallas McMurray and Noah Vinson, as the Sorceress’s two witches, were especially outstanding in their roles, but everyone in the dance group looked wonderful. Dido is an example of Morris’s musicality at its most intense: not a note goes by that doesn’t get its corresponding motion, and not a gesture occurs that doesn’t echo the sense and feel of the score. It is pure pleasure. Even Dido’s final unhappiness, tear-inducing as it is in this production, brings a strange kind of painful pleasure—maybe the most intense form of pleasure there is, to those of us watching and hearing it from a distance.