Well, here it is, and better (very) late than never (I've been having computer trouble):
L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato: Handel's pastoral oratorio based on two works by John Milton, L'Allegro (The Cheerful Man) and Il Penseroso (The Thoughtful Man), contrasting the virtues of a life of joy and one of contemplation, and Il Moderato (The Moderate Man) by Charles Jennens (although some of the items have been rearranged, and much of the "Moderato" section cut), was choreographed by Mark Morris in 1988 during his company's time in Brussels, and is considered by many to be his masterpiece.
The work is set for chorus and two sopranos (Susan Gritton, Linda Richardson), tenor (Timothy Robinson) and baritone (Neal Davies), although the counter-tenor used in the 1997 performances is omitted; the singing was of a high standard throughout, but unfortunately the words, especially those sung by the sopranos, were not always audible, although the fact that the soloists were located in the orchestra pit to leave the stage free for dance may have contributed to this. There is so much to take in, dance, music and libretto-wise, that having to concentrate so hard to hear the words detracts from full enjoyment of the performance.
The costumes, by Christine van Loon, are simplicity itself: chiffony shift dresses for the women, with a slightly longer underdress in a contrasting colour which shows as they dance; footless tights and blousony tops for the men. The costumes all differ slightly in style, and the colours are generally muddy, autumnal ones, changing to brighter ones for the second part.
James F. Ingalls' lighting and Adrianne Lobel's set designs are an integral part of the performance: consisting, equally simply, of translucent or coloured gauzes and backdrops, generally brighter for the "Allegro" and more subdued for the "Penseroso" sections, raised and lowered to various heights at different depths of the wings to give different dimensions of dancing space, the drops, combined with suitable lighting, divide the dance and the dancers into sections, now showing them clearly, now making it look as though they are dancing in a mist, or in a dream.
As is so frequently the case with Morris' work, the steps look deceptively simple, as if you could almost dance them yourself. Probably the greatest influence is folk dance of various origins, plus courtly dance from around Handel's period, but there are also nods in the direction of classical ballet, Balanchine and Paul Taylor, among others. The mood of the dance varies widely during the performance: joyful, bawdy, solemn, rowdy, humorous, narrative and abstract, to name but a few. Again, as usually happens with Morris, the dance illuminates both the words and the melody of the music. Sometimes the dancers are all dancing the same way, while at others some will dance to the melody while others reflect the underlying patterns. At times the dancers mirror each other's movements, or echo them in canon. Repeated motifs include arms curved in a crescent shape, particularly as the dancer is lifted in profile to the audience, and flattened arabesques, sometimes involving turns, where the arm, head, back and leg form virtually a single line. The dancers are frequently grouped like prancing horses with one dancer leading the way, trailing several others behind him, rather like the young god leading the three muses in Balanchine's "Apollo". Whatever the steps, both the dance and the dancers are intensely musical, even the simplest movements of their bodies seeming to "breathe" in sympathy with the music.
To the words "Hence, loathèd Melancholy" the dancers enter, criss-crossing the stage in two lines, arms wide, running faster and faster until it is unbelievable that they do not collide, rather like those military-style gymnastic displays sometimes shown on television. Later, they roll around barrel-like on the floor, legs splayed apart, as the tenor sings "Laughter, holding both his sides", and even reflect the "ha-ha-ha" sounds in the music. There is a solo (to a beautifully shimmering flute), equally beautifully danced, with fluttering arms and birdlike movements of the head, by a man representing the lark, interspersed with the rest of the company wheeling, swirling and swooping across the stage like the flocks of starlings in Leicester Square, just up the road, and this is followed by another for a woman which recalls Odette in Swan Lake, with arms softly crossed at the wrists.
The bird motifs continue as the dancers move across the stage in pairs, the men lifting their (male and female) partners in graceful overhead "swallow" lifts, and later repeating the same movements with "phantom" partners in the absence of the real dancers. This is followed by the "hunt scene", the dancers representing not only the deer and the hounds, but also the trees and bushes, while the hunters prance around joyfully in some sort of pastoral idyll, and later the dancers' bodies combine yet again in groups as they represent fireplaces with flickering arms as the flames, and movement flows in succession through their legs, bodies and arms as they lie in lines on the floor, rather like a recumbent Mexican wave. As the first part quietens to a close, the dancers pick up their partners in their arms and carry them like tired children (gender being seemingly irrelevant, so that the women carry the men and vice versa), and the music ends with the dancers sleeping innocently with each other, spoon-like, in circles, as others creep away softly.
In Part 2, the dance reflects the general busyness of the "populous cities" of Milton's ode, and later the mating and giving birth of the "Hymen" section, with the women first being lifted upside-down in front of their partners' bodies in a tucked foetal position, and later in an open-legged, squatting position to represent giving birth. There is an all-male dance in which the men, with perfect comic and musical timing, alternate slaps, kisses and punches with mock-courtly yet jolly dancing hand in hand in pairs, and slapping themselves and each other on the thigh and buttocks, all perfectly timed with the musical accents.
To the last Moderato section, Morris does little more than make his dancers, hand in hand in four lines, walk with a dipping step in various patterns – squares, crosses, diagonals – across the stage, yet such is the musicality that this is one of the most beautiful and affecting sections of the whole work, particularly to judge by the applause it generated. A backdrop overprinted with vertical purple lines is lowered to represent the "studious cloisters pale" and as the dancers process onto the stage, raising their gaze in awe and wonder, the music takes on the form of church music, with choir and organ, and then the choreography has the dancers play a sedate game of "musical statues" with the music before processing back out in a reversal of the way they entered.
In the final section, "L'Allegro", the singer has made his choice between the two lives: "Mirth, with thee I mean to live". There are more "Apollo"-type movements, large joyous leaps à la Paul Taylor's "Airs", and even a section reminiscent of "Giselle"'s Hilarion encountering a group of benevolent Wilis, as a man is spun along a line of women. After dancers, several at a time, simply run and jump joyfully across the stage, the piece finally ends very simply, as did the first half, with the dancers forming into three concentric circles which revolve as the curtain starts to fall.
The final performance finished with a marvellous touch – at the curtain calls a shower of flowers rained on to the stage from the stage boxes. Initially I just assumed that it was the audience showing their appreciation as they frequently do at Covent Garden, until I realised that the occupants of the boxes were the members of the chorus. Never before have I seen such a tribute to dancers from the musicians working with them, but it was thoroughly deserved.
A masterpiece? When I first saw the work three years ago, I was not convinced, having been more impressed with shorter pieces by Morris that I had seen, but now, on a second and third viewing, and with greater familiarity with the words and music, and seemingly greater musicality of the dancers, I would have to say that if it is not a masterpiece it is not far short of one.