Since its premiere in 1988, Mark Morris’ full-length dance staging of Handel’s oratorio “L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” has provoked two widespread reactions. One: How blessed we are to live in an age in which such miraculous beauty is made! Two: When will this be filmed and made available to a wider public?
More even than many other pieces by Morris, “L'Allegro” is a subtle philosophical essay, a study of contrasting ways of living and thinking. This dualism derives from Milton’s fraternal-twin poems about lives of action and contemplation, “L'Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” (Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens arranged sections from Milton’s poems in alternation while adding his own Moderato, part of which - for the heavenly “As steals the morn” - is adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”)
Bataillon’s camera does a felicitous job of catching the kinetic energy of Morris’ dances. A jumping entrance out of the wings, a spinning exit back into them, the sudden arrival of a full ensemble to flood the stage - these are just some of the moments that catch the breath here as it is caught in the theater. Some of the sensuous color spectrum of Adrienne Lobel’s sets and Christine van Loon’s costumes seem yet more wonderful in this recording.
Occasionally the camera goes aloft, as when it gives a full view of 24 dancers in four vertical rows, passing motifs along like messages. Elsewhere there are perfect though brief close-ups to highlight specific choreographic features, though in general the camera attends to the full stage picture.
The camera also feasts on this work’s occasional but haunting use of stillness - an exemplification of the Penseroso life of contemplation. In one group number, dancers fill the stage only to stand motionless, looking upward, their backs to us, like an informal church congregation, while the organ plays; the effect is ideal.