The late Patric Standford may have written these short pieces deliberately to provoke our feedback. If so, his success is reflected in the rich range of readers' comments appearing at the foot of most of the pages.
The nineteen-year-old Mozart's Il Re Pastore (The Shepherd King) is designated a serenata, which at the time generally meant a kind of secular oratorio, or an opera without staging. So the bank of video screens at the back of an otherwise bare stage in director Jack Furness's Buxton Festival production actually provides more of a visual setting than the first audience enjoyed in 1775, so records tell us. Recorded birdsong before the overture establishes the rural setting; throughout, the videos, also directed by Jack Furness, switch between shots of running streams, woodland, hills and grazing sheep - Buxton Opera House, Buxton, UK, 9 July 2023.
Based on an episode in the life of Alexander the Great (Alessandro), the plot concerns his efforts to place a legitimate ruler on the throne of the kingdom of Sidon, which he has freed from the tyrant Straton. This also involves sorting out a tangle of relationships between two pairs of lovers. The shepherd Aminta, actually the rightful king, though at the start no-one, not even Aminta himself, knows this, is in love with Elisa, a Phoenician noblewoman; Tamiri, Straton's daughter, disguised as a shepherdess for fear of Alessandro's anger, is in love with Agenore, a Sidonian nobleman assisting Alessandro. The tangle is created by Alessandro, who originally planned to marry Aminta off to Tamiri. In the end, the correct pairs of lovers are reunited. Aminta, though, turns down the offer of the throne, and Alessandro, impressed by his honesty, appoints Agenore and Tamiri as Sidon's rulers.
As Furness commented in the pre-opera talk, the characters are all 'really nice people', which doesn't, on the face of it, generate much in the way of dramatic tension. Nevertheless, their reactions to changing events give Mozart, already with considerable theatrical experience behind him, plenty of scope for characterisation.
In the trouser role of Aminta, Katie Coventry is convincing as a young man who just wants to get on with his quiet life, her high mezzo-soprano soaring easily to the heights of Mozart's writing. She gives a touching account of 'L'amerò, sarò costante', one of the work's two stand-out arias, partnered by Sarah Brandwood-Spencer's poised violin obbligato. Ellie Neate follows up her flirty Lisa in Bellini's La Sonnambula as a sweetly sparky Elisa. Together, the two singers really dig into Aminta and Elisa's confused reactions to the news that Aminta is the rightful king at the end of Act I.
Olivia Carrell's Tamiri rounds on Agenore fiercely in 'Barbaro, oh Dio! mi vedi', in the belief that he is about to go along with Alessandro's plan and marry Aminta, leaving her in the lurch; she even gets to slap him, hard, before storming off.
George Curnow makes Agenore the soul of patient endurance. Joseph Doody's Alessandro is every inch the conventionally magnanimous ruler, while also showing an impetuous streak.
Hannah Wolfe's costumes are contemporary with the score. Alessandro is in quasi-Napoleonic uniform. Aminta and Elisa are suitably rustic, as is Tamiri, until she is able to drop the disguise. Agenore is in court dress. Jake Wiltshire's lighting adds to the celebratory finale, with glowing candlelight effects spreading round the auditorium, while bubbles fall onto the stage.
Slight Il Re Pastore may be, but it is not insubstantial. Adrian Kelly conducts, the Northern Chamber Orchestra plays, and the singers project their roles, with a sure feel for Mozart on the brink of greatness, with Idomeneo just six years away.
Copyright © 19 July 2023