Friday, June 26, 2009

Il Re Pastore

The third production in my Opera Theatre of St. Louis subscription series was Mozart's Il Re Pastore which was composed when Mozart was only nineteen. I had never seen (or heard) it before but it was Mozart so I knew I'd enjoy the music even if the production bored me. But the production was riveting.
First the story.
It takes place in ancient times right after Alessandro the King of Macedonia has overthrown the tyrant of Sidon. Alessandro is searching for the rightful heir of Sidon while Tamiri, the daughter of the overthrown tyrant, is waiting to find out what will happen to her. As the story opens Aminta, a young shepherd, is in love with a young woman named Elisa and they plan to marry. But then Alessandro determines that Aminta is the rightful heir of Sidon. So Alessandro's sidekick, Agenore, whisks Aminta away to teach him how to be king and Alessandro decides that Aminta will marry Tamiri. Tamiri, though, is really in love with Agenore, who is also in love with her.
Lots of confusion ensues (but not really comic confusion) as the two sets of lovers sing of their angst. Lots of emoting about the conflict between love and duty. Finally Alessandro is convinced to let the couples that are in love marry and there is a happy ending.
The music is beautiful and the voices were perfect. Heidi Stober sings Aminta. This is her OTSL debut and I want her back! (Yes, she is a woman singing a man's role. It's called a "pants role" and Mozart and other composers used this often when the character was supposed to be a young man. It can be very confusing.) Her soprano is clear and warm and her diction perfect. Maureen McKay sang Elisa and her soprano was bell-like. I've heard her before and enjoyed her performance but she was outstanding this year. The men, Alek Shrader as Alessandro and Paul Appleby as Agenore, were outstanding, particularly Shrader. Daniela Mack rounds out the cast as Tamiri and her mezzo was warm but clear.
The music itself is ... Mozart. Glorious. Although there is, as with most Mozart, a lot of repetition that can get a little tedious if it is not in capable hands.  That was not a problem with this production. Unlike later Mozart operas, Il Re Pastore is not an opera with trios and quartets that make things a little more interesting. Mostly each singer would sing an individual aria, followed by a responsive aria by another singer. Sort of like a cantata. It is not until the end that all five protagonists sing together. That part was exquisite as the voices were perfectly matched. Conductor, Canadian Jean-Marie Zeitouni, is a newcomer and is also someone else I want back again. His orchestra and his singers did not fight each other but blended in a perfection of notes that almost made one forget there was an orchesta.
Sometimes this type of opera ends up being a musically brilliant but visually uninteresting evening. But not this night. Director Charles Rader-Shieber and set designer David Zinn worked together to create a show-within-a-show. The set is a late Victorian/Edwardian country home where a woman and her new fiance are entertaining guests for the weekend to celebrate the engagement. Servants in black are serving tea and dusting and setting flower arrangements in the background. The woman decides (this is all without words) that the weekend is going to be spent performing Il Re Pastore (the way some hostesses might decide to perform a murder mystery or have a bridge tournament) and she starts things off by taking the part of Aminta and she recruits one of the maids to play Elisa (to the jealousy and chagrin of the other servants). Her fiance (cast as Alessandro) is less sure of the whole idea but the male guest (cast as Agenore) jumps right in. His wife doesn't seem too interested until her time to play Tamiri comes around and then she finds herself swept into the part.
At first I thought this "back story" would be distracting but I grew to love it. It gave the audience things to watch and think about that did not in any way distract from the story of Il Re Pastore. It helped make the "pants role" a bit less distracting than it usually is because there was no pretense that the singer was a man, it was clearly a woman singing a man's role. And it layered the meaning of the text so that the audience had multiple things to think about in this story of the tension between love and duty.
The set was glorious - if the house existed in real life I'd like to live in it. The costumes were magnificent, especially the gown "Aminta" wears in the second half. The orchestra was precise and not overpowering; the lighting, especially through the stained glass windows, evoked a fading day perfectly. All in all it was a perfect night.
Here is the Trailer for it. Watch it just to see the set and the costumes. There is also a short documentary at that site that tells more about the production itself.