Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Il re pastore @ Barbican Hall, London

24 June 2006

By the time the 19-year-old Mozart composed his opera Il re pastore, he was clearly aware of the nuts and bolts of opera composing. This was Mozart’s ninth opera; he had served his apprenticeship. Mozart operas of later years may or may not be better, but Il re pastore can be judged on its own merits.

The plot of the opera deals with love and the glorification of royalty. The original text (by court poet Metastasio) was written for Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa and her family in 1751. 24 years later, to celebrate a visit to Salzburg by Maria Theresa’s youngest son, Mozart was commissioned to set the play as an opera. Text and music celebrate the good hearts of kings.

There are five characters in the play, all of whom appear in the opera. There is the shepherd Aminta, who unbeknown to himself is heir to the throne of Sidon. His love is Elisa, a noble girl. Alessandro, the king of Macedonia, is looking for the lost heir of Sidon (and finds him during the course of the opera in the person of shepherd Aminta). Agenore, a nobleman, loves Tamiri, who is the daughter of a previously deposed tyrant. There are some misunderstandings and mistaken identities during the plot but all ends well. Thanks to the goodness and wisdom of Alessandro, Aminta and his beloved Elisa get the throne of Sidon while Agenore and his beloved Tamiri are promised another throne.

Presumably in line with the resources, Mozart set the music fora castrato (Aminta), two sopranos (Elisa and Tamiri) and twotenors (Alessandro and Agenore). Most of the arias demand virtuosity. Perhaps these vocal difficulties contributed to the virtual disappearance of this opera for over 200 years. Yet the music is pleasing, even fascinating. Archduke Maximilian Franz, whose Salzburg visit caused Mozart to compose Il re pastore, should have been pleased.

Sadly, the Classical Opera Company‘s performance was not as good as Mozart deserved. Tenor Mark Le Brocq (Agenore) was the only singer to do full justice to Mozart. He is clearly accomplished and also very expressive. The other four singers were not quite in Le Brocq’s class. This may be because he is a more mature artist, while his four colleagues are recent graduates of music colleges. However, coaching (or the lack of it) might have had something to do with the disparity between Le Brocq and his younger colleagues.

Of the ladies, Anna Leese (Tamiri) was the most competent. With her feet literally firmly on the ground (and seemingly well balanced), she delivered expressive singing with lots of variety. Rebecca Bottone (Elisa) has singing in her genes. Like her father (tenor Bonaventure Bottone), she has a lovely natural voice and inherent charm. I am sure she will make a wonderful Despina, Susanna and other significant Mozart characters in the not too distant future. But her Elisa lacked stamina to last all those virtuoso arias.

Andrew Staples (Alessandro) also delivered all the notes including a great many virtuoso passages but musical nuances (or story telling) were not part of his performance. I can’t help thinking that soprano Martene Grimson (Aminta) was miscast. Her voice was not regal enough for the title role of the shepherd king; her notes on the top were often strained. Intonation was also a problem from time to time. Nevertheless, she too delivered the long difficult virtuoso passages.

Conductor Ian Page was not as helpful as I would have liked. Far too often he rushed, not giving a decent opportunity either to the singers or to orchestral players to create their sounds. Already in the Overture he did not allow time for the natural resonance to fill the Hall, especially in repeated crotchet chords. In Aminta’s second aria (Aer tranquillo e di sereni) the semiquaver passages in the violins, even though expertly played, simply did not have time to sound. In Alessandro’s first aria (Si spande al sole in faccia) the excellent horn players sounded as if they were required to spit rather than to create regal fanfares: Ian Page’s speed gave them no chance.

The orchestra clearly had excellent players. The violin obbligato solo in Aminta’s last aria (L’amer, sar constante) was truly stylish and non-obtrusive. There were lovely solo flute passages in Alessandro’s aria (Se vincendo vi rendo felici) and the four horns sounded splendid in Agenore’s brilliantly delivered aria (Sol pu dir, come si trova).

Nevertheless, I was disappointed to see some of the wind and brass players go off and come back to stage. This is bad enough in the opera house (where players seem to think that their comings and goings cannot be seen by the audience), but introducing it into concert performances is even worse. What is wrong with sitting on stage during the performance? Or should audiences, too, start coming and going?

The costumes worn by the singers were nice to look at. However, as there was no acting and the singers performed from the music, the costumes seemed illogical. Indeed, Aminta’s change of dress (from shepherd’s clothes into regal dress) was represented by a different scarf, only the scarf change on stage was implemented before the text suggested it. So we already had the regal scarf while the text still referred to shepherd’s clothing.

The projection on a large screen over the stage, in collaboration with the Royal College of Art, seemed not only unnecessary but obtrusive. The audience should not have been encouraged to watch various shapes and colours while the singers delivered very difficult virtuoso passages: surely they deserved our full concentration.

The programme notes specified three scenes in Act Two (though there are thirteen) and none in Act One (though there are eight). But Ian Page’s background information in the notes was informative.

Final verdict? Despite the problems with this performance, I am looking forward to hearing this opera again.

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Il re pastore @ Barbican Hall, London