Greatest MFA hits; Handel's birthday fete; Bip; `Stage Struck'

Guaranteed to please the most jaded viewers, ``The Great Boston Collectors'' is in essence a vehicle to display the Museum of Fine Arts' greatest hits. It brings beloved favorites out of the involuntary hiding imposed on them by the temporary closing of the Evans Wing, and into a gloriously eclectic limelight. Instead of the usual exhibition structure, which clusters work by chronology or thematic content, the twist used here is to divide the museum's premier painting holdings by the taste of the benefactors whose generosity bequeathed them to the public trust.

``The Legacy of the Founders'' opens the show. The taste of these early collectors prevailed from the museum's inception in 1876, at the Copley Square location, until its move to Huntington Avenue in 1909. Early acquisitions include works by old masters, such local artists as Sargent, and members of the Barbizon School, including Corot and Millet. This otherwise unrelated grouping is hung together, much as they might have been in the early days -- or in the Victorian parlors of their donors.

A shift in taste occurred at the turn of the century, when Bostonians avidly sought out French Impressionist paintings. The MFA's extraordinary collection has been skimmed to reveal the cream of Monet, Degas, C'ezanne, and Van Gogh.

The exhibition concludes with the ``Emergence of American Paintings,'' a trend spurred by the patriotic interest after World War I in all things American. Beginning in the '20s, the museum received an astounding number of colonial portraits -- more than 40 in that decade alone -- as proper Bostonians realized that family heirlooms by Copley and Stuart were in fact considered masterpieces. Here again, the museum has culled superb examples from its renowned collection of American portraiture. The museum's star patron, Maxim Karolik, is heralded for his perspicacity in purchasing such key 19th-century American painters as Cole, Bierstadt, Heade, and Lane in the 1930s, when they were considered worthless by the art world. A Russian 'emigr'e, Karolik was an unlikely champion of American art; his populist sympathies challenge the more typical Brahminesque image of the New England collector. From such ironies and independent minds great art -- and great collecting -- emerges. Through June 2.

Move over, Bach. Though he didn't make the cover of Newsweek, George Frederick Handel is celebrating his 300th birthday this year along with fellow German Johann Sebastian Bach and the Italian Domenico Scarlatti.

And probably nowhere in the country is Handel's music better preserved than in Boston -- by whom else but the 170-year-old Handel & Haydn Society. Trouble is, what do you do as an encore to the world's most well-known and beloved oratorio, ``Messiah,'' performed everywhere just two months ago?

H&H (at Symphony Hall Sunday) took a stab at ``Alexander's Feast: or the Power of Music: An Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia's Day,'' a very Messiah-esque oratorio with four soloists and chorus -- almost as long, but without the punch of the later work.

Audiences -- back in the years before recordings -- expected larger doses of music when they came together. By today's standards, however, a three-hour-plus performance becomes too much of a good thing.

For his part, director Thomas Dunn had his troops primed. The chorus was livelier than usual and gave the performance its needed lift. Soprano Jeanne Ommerl'e sent her usual clear, piercing tones soaring across Symphony Hall, though in upper registers her voice became a bit thin and reedy. Mezzo Rosemarie Grout had the strongest voice of the four soloists, but frequently went flat. Baritone William Sharp, recent top prize winner at the Geneva International Vocal Competition, was basically overpowered by the musicians. Grayson Hirst gave a wonderfully pure and sweet reading to the tenor.

The highlight of the evening was harpist James Pinkerton, playing the ``Concerto for Harp'' written into the second of the evening's seven sections. Angelic, refined -- and dramatically different from the evening's ultimate monotony -- Mr. Pinkerton's artistry showed why Handel at his best is worth waiting for.

After three years, Bip is back. For those of you who don't know, Bip is the Chaplinesque alter ego that French pantomimist Marcel Marceau created in 1947, and who has been flitting after butterflies ever since.

Marceau flitted into the Colonial Theatre on Monday as part of a North American tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of his American debut. The 12 pieces of pantomime ranged from delightful to difficult. Bip trying to dance with the giant of a woman the dating service sent him was wonderful. So was his maskmaker trying to pull off the smiling mask stuck on his face.

But two hours of watching one person's antics onstage in silence can be hard to take if each piece is not absolutely captivating. Several dragged, like the endless stair-climbing of a clerk sent to buck-passing bureaucrats. And ``Bip in the Modern and Future Life'' was excruciatingly long and esoteric.

So some of his pieces are lemons. But Marceau is still the master of this silent, gentle, funny, skillful art form. And that's worth a visit. Through March 10.

Simon Gray's ``Stage Struck,'' at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, can't make up its mind if it's a funny murder mystery or a scary comedy. It ends up being neither. The play is set in the living room of the lovely English country home of egotistical actress Anne O'Neill and her house-husband Robert. When Anne announces out of the blue that she wants Robert out of this house he so dearly loves, he organizes a plan of revenge that involves stage-managing his own death.

There is a lot that is clever about this play about a murder in a theatrical family, including the idea of using theater props -- stage blood, fake bullets, and a bloody dummy. But there's something leaden about it; it is not structured well. Gray does not seem to want to lead the audience subtly through the clues, which are trumpeted tauntingly. And there are enough holes in the logic to lose all but the shrewdest of mystery fans.

Another problem is that the actors are trying so hard to get their dialects right that the light British humor gets bogged down. Nora Hussey's direction gives some nice touches to the couple in happier moments, but it could do more to counteract the playwright's shortcircuiting of his own suspense.

Despite lovely costumes (Amanda Aldridge) and set (Leslie Taylor), and adequate performances by Don Leslie (Robert), Mary Chalon (Anne), George Feaster (Herman), and Tom Bade (Widdecombe), the effect is a mystery that's not scary, a comedy that's not funny. Through March 10.

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