As a choreographer, Mark Morris believes that dancing is a perfectly natural thing for humans to do. How else to explain the way he turned a company of male opera singers into a troupe of dancers?

<i>Curlew River</i> © Nan Melville
Curlew River
© Nan Melville

That’s precisely what he did with his setting of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River. You can quibble about Britten’s atonal heterophonic work and whether or not it’s fun to listen to (it isn’t) but you have to give Morris credit for wringing the most out of this Christian parable as opera. From the very start I was able to understand every word of the Noh-based tale and parts of it were quite effective. Briefly, an Abbot relates the tale of a Traveler and a Madwoman who are taken across the Curler River by a Ferryman in the company of several pilgrims to visit the shrine of a boy whose grave has become a sacred site. The madwoman turns out to be the dead boy’s mother and she is cured by her visit to his grave. It opened with a procession of pilgrims singing in plain chant that was ethereally beautiful. The stage and the performers were all draped in white which gave the production an atmosphere of sanctity and tranquility. The cast was all male as is traditional in Noh theater and Morris incorporated other elements of Japanese culture. The performers left their traditional sandals at the edge of the stage as they came in and worked at creating origami figures which were later used as offerings at the shrine. The interesting part was that the singers did their own dancing and all of them looked completely comfortable, moving with ease and grace. Granted, their steps weren’t especially difficult but this is quite an achievement. Beginning with simple gestures that we use in everyday life, Morris added movements of increasing complexity that resulted in professional singers doing actual dancing. And it was good. Musically, this sort of atonal work does not please me. I can’t find anything to hang onto thematically so my attention wanders but it had its high points.

<i>Dido and Aeneas</i> © Nan Melville
Dido and Aeneas
© Nan Melville

Henry Purcell’s English baroque masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas, filled the second half of the program. Here, the drama was acted out on the stage by the Mark Morris Dance Group while the orchestra and singers accompanied from the orchestra pit. Where Curlew River was all white, Dido’s setting was all in black. The dancers were in black unisex costumes and the men wore colorful lipstick so that gender was obscured for the most part. It was a smashing success as opera and as dance. Look no further than Laurel Lynch who played the dancing Dido/Sorceress while Stephanie Blythe sang the roles. With her wild, flying mane and earthy sensuality, Lynch was larger than life and made the whole enterprise worth seeing while Blythe sang with a rich mezzo sound that filled the house. Interesting side note: Morris danced the dual roles of Dido and the Sorceress himself in the original production and I can only wonder what that must have been like. Domingo Estrada looked every inch the powerful warrior Aeneas with his sculpted physique. He and Lynch had great chemistry together even though she towered over him. This production adroitly threads the line between seriousness and camp hilarity. Too far one way or the other and it would not have worked as well as it did. This is a piece that I’d like to see again.

Mark Morris has wide-ranging curiosity that is astounding to watch. I’ve seen him do many different things and while they are not all equally successful, I am always engaged by his buoyant musicality. In this performance, he turned his hand to staging two English operas of very different sensibilities and showed that he was equally adept at navigating both. Curlew River, while not my cup of tea, was visually arresting and had dramatic points that I found enjoyable. Dido and Aeneas was triumphant and had all those great moments that make Morris’s choreography among the most musical I’ve seen.