wed 24/07/2024

Mark Morris's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, London Coliseum | reviews, news & interviews

Mark Morris's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, London Coliseum

Mark Morris's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, London Coliseum

A Handel masterpiece with slapped bums, peeing dogs and sublime dance poetry

L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato: Milton's phrase, 'Trip it as you go/ On the light fantastic toe', could have been minted for Mark MorrisPhotos Ken Friedman/MMDG

In 1988 young contemporary choreographer Mark Morris, newly installed in Brussels’ munificent Théâtre de la Monnaie as resident dancemaker to succeed the Emperor of Big, Maurice Béjart, thought not just big but grandly off-beam.

Instead of Béjart’s slickly sexy, stripped-down divinities of modern ballet, Morris gave the audience chubby, barefoot, all-sorts dancers naively skipping and slapping each others’ bottoms; instead of mass-market arena confections to starry rock, he chose to work with John Milton’s archaic poetry and George Frederick Handel’s filigree proprieties; instead of artful posturing, he offered richly fruited body language and artless, even naff childlike humour.

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is uncategorisable - it’s both dance and oratorio, both narratively coloured and yet at times more formally complex than purest ballet, and its reappearance in Britain last night 13 years after its London premiere is a joy.

I imagine a dinner party with blind Milton, fat Handel and wicked Morris as a riotous and highly disputatious evening ending in sworn blood-brotherhood. Story is there none: more a stream of arias by solo singers and choruses incarnating an energetic battle for supremacy between two opposing figures, L’Allegro (who likes parties, happiness and Mirth) and Il Penseroso (who prefers pensive solitude and romantic introspection). Though Handel let Penseroso have the last word, Morris's edit of the score gives Allegro both first and last word, allowing Mirth to triumph.

lallegro_soarThis happens on stage too. Milton’s phrase “Trip it as you go/ On the light fantastic toe” could have been minted for Mark Morris. It looks like dance from a dimension before ballet was invented, so carefree as to appear almost uncalculated. Dancers gust on as if blown on to the stage, or are glimpsed skipping in the wings as if we're missing the party they're at, or they trade slaps on bottoms and faces, or march in serious, dignified lines like schoolchildren going to heaven.

We saw Morris's darker side on his company’s British visit last autumn but it’s his smile that is the abiding image of L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato. Handel is more sublime in his Penseroso aspect here. The Moderato figure was inserted by Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens to allow a referee to hold the ring between the two extremes, and though not Miltonic, the brief pastiche verses of “As steals the morn upon the night” inspired the composer to one of his most heartstopping numbers. This duet is a piece to hear before you die, and one to see too, calling up Morris’s most delicate, gossamer touch as quartets of dancers brush on to the stage and off again, evanescent as bubbles.

It’s because Morris drinks in Milton’s lists of images and turns them so beguilingly into dance imagery, the birds and the bees “with honey’d thigh”, “maids dancing in the chequer’d shade”, “throngs of knights and barons bold”, that it was such a pity last night to find the words so hard to hear from the singers down in the Coliseum pit, a vocally first-class team otherwise. Without the words clear, the top slice of Morris’s cleverness with bending verbal conceits as well as music to his choreographic artistry is lost.

Milton's mention of Ben Jonson's "sock" elicits a funny slapstick battle as men slap each other's faces and bottoms - but you need to hear the line too. The baritone’s couplet “To listen how the hounds and horn Cheery rouse the slumb’ring morn” raises the most diverting choreographed animation of a hunt - dancers clump together to become trees and bushes (typically Morris said, “With my budget I could have had real shrubbery but it’s more interesting to make my dancers be shrubbery”), two girls amorously holding hands scoot about the “shrubbery” while boys on all fours sniff their trail and even pee on the bushes. And when the baritone repeats and draws out his short phrases, Morris wittily repaints the scene tapering it off with a sweet little disappointed sigh between the girls as the chase is over.

lallegro_ringAgain, without hearing the words “Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes”, you can’t feel the full poignancy of Morris’s device of a woman watching her mirror image dancing the other side of a gauze, as if wishing she could reach across time. Morris uses gauzes arrestingly like layers of perception or dimension, separating public and private spaces, past, present and future, and the gorgeous framing of Adrianne Lobel’s backcloths, pink, green, blackcurrant, lit in constantly shifting moods by James F. Ingalls, adds yet another layer of mastery to the whole experience. We start looking into black emptiness, we end, with joyful inevitability, in dazzling sunshine circling in ring-o'-roses.

The motleyness of Morris's dancers is a moot point for first-time visitors, but last night they looked scrupulously tuned and fast-witted during this two-hour dance, and the fact that they range from super-graceful to dorky demonstrates the inclusiveness that characterises his entire creative viewpoint. You may disagree with his choices, but he chose them because he thinks they’re great.

I have more of a gripe about the musicians, despite the fact that Jane Glover was conducting a flexible and texturally interesting period performance by the ENO orchestra. You needed to know Milton’s verses to get the whole nine yards of Morris’s fertile inventiveness as Elizabeth Watts and Sarah-Jane Brandon make meltingly beautiful soprano sounds, but not a word could be made out from my stalls seat, and the men, Mark Padmore and Andrew Foster-Williams, fared little better. Clearer diction should be mandatory in this week’s remaining London shows and in Birmingham next week, or they’re spoiling the whole gig.

Share this article


This is a very well written review that I completely agree with. We were in the Upper Circle and had a glorious view of the dancers - the shapes and patterns were breathtaking and so satisfactory to see repeats so you could follow the flow and shape better the second time. The images conjured up will stay with me. I wish now I was going every night. I was very lucky however because I know the lyrics-it happens to be my favourite music and after singing them in school choir 40 years ago have loved the whole piece since then. I was excited to hear the music but the singing was under whelming. The choir lacked any performance energy and were very quiet even in the big Populous Cities. I could just make out what the men were singing but my party did not have a clue what the women were singing- it was completely incomprehensible. I bought a programme at the interval and gave it to my younger companions so they could see the words. ADVICE to anyone going - especially at those prices- read the words first or listen to the 2 CDS or get a programme early and read the words.

I think this is a prime example of web reviewers not knowing what they are talking about. The Coliseum is a notoriously difficult place for hearing the words even if the singers are on stage, let alone in the pit. I for one could hear the singers making every effort to put the text across but the acoustics were not in their favour. It is not an ideal situation but to patronise an artist like Mark Padmore by advising them to work on their diction and to presume they would not already be doing this, is frankly ridiculous. It is sad that the words were not clear, I agree, but get your facts straight before apportioning blame.

That's rather rude (though we're getting used to it - I suppose givers have to be receivers, too) - and the fact remains, that words HAVE to be heard at any cost, even if it means repositioning the singers. The more recent ENO productions have been hit and miss; but I think we'd all agree that the Katya Kabanova was a model of verbal clarity. OK, so none of the singers were in the pit, but I still say it can be done. Padmore fell victim to bad positioning on the stage in Katie Mitchell's production of Handel's Jephtha, where the chorus masked the principals. Anyway, I remember loving Susan Gritton the last time this show was aired, and hearing every word.

That's a much more insightful comment, in my opinion. A shame it isn't in the review proper. I agree, reposition the singers (perhaps they are not in exactly the same place as last time? Small differences can be crucial) as the words are vital.

I would end by adding that all Ismene said was that "clearer diction should be mandatory" and that the singers didn't fare well, so she does not seem to be criticising directly "an artist like Mark Padmore" - who has not, in my experience, been beyond reproach recently, much as I admired his Evangelist in the staging of the St John Passion some years back. And I do think there's an implied condescension in "web reviewers not knowing what they are talking about". In effect, many web review sites are available to anyone to sound off who wants to. But we pride ourselves on this one being different in that the writers are all established professional critics, and Ismene Brown is certainly no exception - indeed, she has more experience than most.

This is 100% a situation of positioning of singers. Andrew Foster-Williams is known to have exceptional diction, and Elizabeth Watts is brilliant recitalist, and yet, from the stalls at least, ALL of the singers' words were indistinct. If one singer's words had been crystal clear and the rest not, then this would be a diction issue. Given that all were the same, it's obviously an acoustic problem - and this is why it's unfair, and not objective enough, for this critic to criticize the singers' diction in this instance. It's a great piece of writing, but sadly fails to clearly understand the situation in this particular section regarding the vocal soloists. It seems likely that Mark Morris did not want any distraction from the dancing on stage. Hence, not providing surtitles and putting the singers in the pit. I understand why he chose to do this, as this is predominately a dance piece - and a sublimely beautiful one at that - but please don't criticize the singers for being put in an impossible situation acoustically.

Thanks for clarifying, Jack. Your remarks are very even-handed. But what a shame that words, music and dance can't be on an equal footing, especially given the calibre of the soloists singin bits of my favourite Milton poems. When Morris dances Purcell's Dido, Sarah Connolly sang from a box at the side - that would be a good solution, wouldn't it?

David, to have positioned the singers in a box at the side would have been an interesting solution. So long as they had clear communicative contact with the conductor. As this is a dance piece, it's essential that the different tempi remain consistent through each and every performance, and that involves a very strong partnership between singer and conductor.

Since I could make out some verbal phrases, but not most of them, I deduced that this could not be 100 percent an acoustic problem, very familiar though I am with the Coliseum's vagaries. Evidently this was a combination of factors (two other critics to whom I spoke today were equally dismayed by the singers' indistinctiveness), but singers and stagers know the venue's shortcomings and need to make specific efforts to overcome them, especially in such a vitally interested piece as this. Yes, positioning is likely to be of paramount concern to Morris and also easier to manage acoustically in other venues. But like David I remember hearing a happier marriage of verbal clarity and dance felicity last time round.

Ismene, your writing is fluid, descriptive and, for the most part, well-informed. However, your deduction in the above comment that as you could hear some phrases clearly this indicated that the problem was predominately one of poor diction, does betray a certain lacking in technical knowledge. Even given an atrocious acoustic, 'certain phrases' will still be clear depending on the positioning of consonants within each word and how each word/phrase is set within the orchestral scoring. After this discussion, I went to see the performance again on Saturday evening and decided this time to sit in the Dress Circle, instead of the Stalls. The acoustic was very different indeed, and although many words were still lost, many that were totally indistinct were crystal clear from this different perspective. This further proves my assertion that this is almost 100% an acoustic problem. It perfectly makes sense for, although the soloists were slightly raised, they were still, to some extent singing into the pit wall, and this would have a large impact on what people were hearing in stalls seats... As far as recollections of the last production go (10 years ago), if the soloists had been in even a slightly different position in the pit, this would have had a large impact. Also, memory is a rather fickle mistress... What I will say in your defense, however, is that in - what was apparently - the one day rehearsal on stage, someone should have been standing in various parts of the house to assess this problem.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters