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Seen and Heard Opera Review


‘Mostly Mozart’ Festival: Mozart, Il Re Pastore. Classical Opera Company, cond. Ian Page. Barbican Hall, 24.06. 2006. (ME)

Ah, the Pastoral - that manifestation of the myth that ‘ordinary’ mortals have it so much better than the powerful, stretching back to Virgil, through Shakespeare and on to the present day, when we fondly imagine yokels in idyllic landscapes must be  somehow more ‘connected’ than the rest of us. The story of ‘The Shepherd King’ was first performed as an entertainment at the court of the Empress Maria Theresa, and written by Metastasio within the confines of a rigid framework including the rules that the work must glorify monarchy and must never include evil characters or actions, since such inclusions would reflect badly on the royal children who played the parts. By the time Mozart set the piece, it was already a popular tale, although he adapted the story so as to make it a more suitable vehicle for the depiction of emotion. It’s silly stuff, of course – shepherd lad loves girl, is really king but doesn’t know it, has to finally choose love or duty but by intercession of noble Emperor is able to fulfil both…the questions are, is it worth hearing, and are the mostly young singers of TCO up to it? The answer in both cases is yes, with reservations.

The first act is entirely made up of arias expressing unbounded joy, so it’s especially remarkable that the music retains our interest: the second act is full of almost-great music, in the case of the one aria, ‘L’amerò, sarò costante’ actually reaching true sublimity. Martene Grimson’s Shepherd King is a very mature assumption for so young an artist, and she took herself completely seriously in the role, singing with rich tone and presenting a believable shepherd boy and credible king: ‘L’amerò’ was the high point it should be. Andrew Staples had the less grateful role of impersonating the noble Emperor whose generosity almost passes belief: the part has some very taxing moments, notably in the second act, and Staples did not quite manage the most difficult of them. The second tenor’s part was taken by the experienced Mark le Brocq, who brought a finely burnished tone and his expected commitment to the role – his first act aria was beautifully sung.

The two soprano parts (the role of the Shepherd King was originally for soprano castrato) were reliably taken by Anna Leese and Rebecca Bottone, although there were times when I wondered if these two singers are doing too much at present – they have only just finished a run of ‘Così’ and there were moments here where the need for a little more polish was felt. The closing quintet, with its glimpses of future greatness, was enthusiastically done, and the playing under Ian Page was as sprightly as we have come to expect, especially in the woodwind sections. I could have lived without the so-called ‘design elements’ provided by the Royal College of Art – apparently the idea was to reflect the Imperial colour of purple, the dye for which originally came from the area where the opera is set, but unfortunately the blue colour streaming onto the white backdrop never quite made it to purple, and actually resembled those adverts for sanitary towels where the inexplicably blue liquid is poured onto the white pad so as to demonstrate its absorbency.

All credit, nevertheless, to the Mostly Mozart festival for bringing this work to a wider public: this one at least is an opera where no one can complain too much about its being given a concert-style performance, since that is how it was in fact first heard in 1775.

Melanie Eskenazi



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)