Mark Morris, a favourite with Edinburgh audiences, returns to this year’s Festival wearing a different hat - opera director. He assures Alan Morrison that fusing dance and song in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice didn’t involve going to hell and back.
3 the Edinburgh International Festival hits its 50th year. one of its most popular performers is facing up to a keynote birthday of his own. Mark Morris - American choreographer. dancer and the Festival’s adopted son —- turns 40 on 29 August. Unfortunately, he‘ll have headed home by the time the candles are lit on the cake. but not before he’s added to a growing catalogue of acclaimed Edinburgh productions with another set of performances by the Mark Morris Dance Group.
He's also here in a different guise - director of Gluck’s I762 opera Otfeo ed Elli‘l(li€e. although in the past he has staged Strauss‘s Die Fletlermaas in Seattle and Mozart’s The Marriage 0f Figaro in Brussels. Does this step into less familiar territory mean that the dance world's enfrmt terrible. now hitting that ‘life— begins-at’ stage. is considering growing up? Unlikely. because the voice at the end of the phone line is as playful as ever.
‘I work with music all the time and I like old music better. so as far as I’m concerned. it’s not that big a leap into staging a bigger piece like this.’ says Morris. refuting the argument that Orfeo marks a distinct break from his work as choreographer. ‘Just about all opera used to have dancing in it. so this particular piece was always intended to have singing and dancing and music and stagecraft united — that’s what opera’s about.’
Artistic cross-fertilisation is one of the veins running through the I996 Festival programme. with the dual centrepieces being Morris’s Orfeo and Pina Bausch’s production of another Gluck opera. Iphigenie attf Tattris. What Morris has done with his production is re-introduce dance into the body ofthe performance. separating and clarifying the stage roles of the chorus and the dancers rather than forcing singers into awkward pirouettes. ‘They sing. we dance’ is his rule of thumb.
“As the tale of Orfeo’s descent into the underworld in search of his lost love progresses. members of the Mark Morris Dance Group appear as mourners. shepherds and figures in the Elysian Fields. As Orfeo sings his trenchant Act I aria. the off-stage ‘echo‘ from the orchestra is personified by an on-stage dancer. Thus the action is given a dynamic force without distracting the singers from their primary employment — not that Morris was content to have his star performers standing stock still while belting forth.
‘I was expecting him to be extremely precise about every movement we’d make.’ explains counter-tenor Michael Chance. who plays Orfeo. ‘but he has choreographed some scenes in the sense that he’s given me specific movements to do which are then reflected in what the dancers do. and vice versa. Ai other parts. he just does a very good blocking and leaves it up to me. It was very instructive — I’ve learnt a lot about using my body on stage.‘
The Mark Morris style of choreography is
Pushing his Gluok
typically pure and uncluttered — ‘classic’ for want of a better word. In a similar way. he has approached the opera by going back to reports ofearly performances. preferring authenticity to overwhelming spectacle.
‘That’s my intention.‘ he agrees. ‘l’ve read a great deal about early productions of this particular show. so I take that information although I’m not reproducing it in any way. I’m not saying it looks like the show that Gluck saw.
‘Just about all opera used to have dancing in it, so this particular piece was always intended to have singing and dancing and music and stagecratt united.’
but it’s quite sober and direct. Lately. a l0t of stuff has been over-produced where. because you have twenty video monitors on stage or something. the productions have become’the stars. This version of Orfeo is pretty old- fashioned. very simple. There are no helicopters crashing or anything. It's plain and it’s direct — not boring. but it’s not wild.’
MARK MORRIS FEATURE
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ping on: Michael Chance (centre) as Orfeo
Adding to the overall sense of authenticity are the originators of the project. Boston’s Handel & Haydn Society. whose chorus and orchestra make their first European appearance at the Festival. Artistic director and conductor Christopher Hogwood is a master of historical musical scholarship and his attention to detail is carried through into performance by the assembled period instrument players. Rendering the score in its original glory with period orchestra is something that gets Michael Chance’s nod of approval.
‘Having decided that you’re going to use a
man - Orfeo is a mezzo role — it would seem appropriate to use period instruments.’ says the singer. ‘There are colours in the instruments. particularly in the cello and oboe. which fit better with the counter-tenor voice. When period instruments are played well. you have a luminous texture in the music which is. not clearer. but perhaps purer.’ ()rfeo etl Euridice (Festival) Mark Morris Dance Group/Handel & Haydn Society Chorus and Orchestra, Festival Theatre. Edittbutglt,_ 013/ 225 5756. [6—20 Aug (not [8), 7.15pm, £5—[45.
The List l6-22 Aug l99615 '