Too Much Democracy Spoils an Opera

'A cast of thousands!" was the breathless advertising pitch for film spectacles such as "The Ten Commandments" and "Cleopatra." The sheer number of extras was meant to impress audiences with the sweep and drama of history.

At times, it looked as though a cast of thousands had taken over the stage at Boston's cavernous Wang Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night. The Mark Morris Dance Group joined the Handel & Haydn Society for an 18th-century danced opera, "Orfeo ed Euridice," which is touring to seven cities.

The stage is cluttered: 24 chorus members, 12 on each side, stand on risers; 16 dancers cavort in the center; and three soloists act and sing the principal roles while weaving among the dancers. Thirty-six orchestra players are deployed in the pit. Diaphanous white curtains swirl in endless pleated folds, dancers in gold and silver toga-like costumes glide past classical Greek columns. Choristers intone their harmonies dressed in austere black-velvet evening attire.

The task of welding together all these different factions must have been enormous, and the effort shows. The production is confusing, with audiences not knowing at first where to focus their attention. The problem stems from too much deference between the companies. Forget democracy, this "Orfeo" needs a dictator.

Mark Morris prefers live music, but in past concerts the musicians and singers were segregated offstage. He is always better when he's in the driver's seat, placing his dancers front and center.

Audiences expect great things of Morris. A choreographer with extravagantly eclectic musical taste (from Michelle Shocked to Vivaldi), he has staged some of his most beautiful dances to pedigreed classics, such as Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" (1689) and Handel's "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato" (1740). He's one of the few modern choreographers who prefers choral music. His best works bring out the poetry of a song's lyrics with the poetry of images and movement.

Handel & Haydn (H&H) is known for its scholarship and dedication to early music. The group has recorded and performed extensively under the leadership of Christopher Hogwood. H&H has also stirred controversy on occasion, with purists complaining that the group goes too far in making its music accessible to younger audiences.

It was Hogwood's idea to join forces with Morris. In an interview before the Boston premiere of "Orfeo," Hogwood spoke about the rationale behind their collaboration. "An organization can stagnate if it doesn't try new things," he says. " 'Orfeo' is no longer a surprise. The music itself is not so revolutionary." This project is aimed at bringing H&H the wider exposure Morris's company enjoys and a new audience that might appreciate early music.

Hogwood and Morris chose German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice." It is based on the myth of Orpheus, whose wife, Eurydice, dies on their wedding day. Orpheus's grief is so powerful that the gods allow him to venture into the underworld to retrieve her, but he is forbidden to look at Euridice or explain why he cannot meet her eyes.

A joint production of "Orfeo," with Morris directing as well as choreographing and Hogwood conducting, promised to combine the best of both groups. Each artistic discipline would burnish and enhance the other.

That was the idea, anyway. Instead, none of the participants shines to best advantage.

On opening night in Boston, an undercurrent of discomfort was perceptible among chorus members, who seemed unsure why they were onstage, and once there, what their response to the action should be. The soloists too looked out of their depth; the panache required to bring their roles to life was sadly lacking. Only the dancers moved with assurance.

Morris's choreography seems held in check, perhaps in deference to the style and tradition of his musical collaborators. He was able to break loose at least twice, once at the beginning of the second act with the whirling and agonized Furies, whom Orfeo must calm with music, and again with the ecstatic movement of rejoicing that closes the opera.

The music was competently played and sung, but without distinction. This was a collaboration in which one side - Handel & Haydn - didn't measure up.

Morris's fans might well wonder how his trademark irreverence and comedic flair could seep through such a serious opera, which traffics in grief and desolation. He does manage to amplify a few less-serious moments, including the visit of Amor, as emissary of the gods, who takes away Orfeo's dagger and starts to casually clean her nails with it.

Did Hogwood worry that Morris's humor might undermine the music's gravity? "When he inserts wit into the dance it's already there in the music," Hogwood says. "He's very classical in approach, and I respect his judgment."

'Orfeo' tours to: Costa Mesa, Calif. (April 24, 25); Los Angeles (April 26-28); Berkeley, Calif. (May 1-3); Brooklyn, N.Y. (May 16-18); and Edinburgh, Scotland (Aug. 16-20).

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