Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Il re pastore (1775)
Alessandro – John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Aminta – Sarah Fox (soprano)
Elisa – Ailish Tynan (soprano)
Tamiri – Anna Devin (soprano)
Agenore – Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
The Orchestra of Classical Opera/Ian Page
rec. St John’s Smith Square, London, 17-25 July 2014
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD433 [62:38 + 54:34]

Simon Thompson’s positive review of this release covers some of the background of its genesis in Salzburg, composed by the still teenage Mozart for the occasion of a VIP visit. The story is one of those romantic intrigues, the complexity of which can cause even the most alert of readers’ eyes to glaze over, even when the synopsis has been rendered with maximum conciseness.

Rather than hinging on the drama, this piece is all about the music and the performance, and Ian Page puts his cards on the table straightaway in an overture that crackles with life. The Orchestra of Classical Opera is a top-notch band, and has some familiar names to call on such as Steven Devine on harpsichord. Originally a semi-staged work, the cast has plenty of ensemble work in the recitatives as well as the set piece arias that have found themselves part of recital programmes. Well-matched voices are a benefit, though with a surfeit of sopranos it is just as well we have the libretto in order to be able to follow who is saying what and to whom.

Sarah Fox is delicious as the Shepherd Aminta, as is Ailish Tynan as opposing love interest Elisa whose early aria Alla selva, al prato, al fonte sets the technical and expressive pace for much of what follows. The men are also very good – firmly masculine as befits their noble status, and John Mark Ainsley suitably imperious as Alexander the Great. Benjamin Hulett’s voice is laden with lovelorn sentiment without becoming annoyingly drippy, and his squeeze Tamari fills out the expressive range of the action with some coloratura moments and extra rolled Rs later on in Act 2.

This is an excellent performance and a superbly produced recording, but the pleasantest surprise is being reminded of just how brilliant the young Mozart was. It is true that the sophistication of plot and musical range of the later operas is much greater, but you can become immersed in the whole thing very easily and, moving from one sublime aria to the next, easily find oneself wondering why this work hasn’t been recorded more often. Alternative recordings for this opera have often been the preserve of complete editions of one kind or another, including the Philips complete edition from 1991 with Sir Neville Marriner which also popped up in the Decca complete opera box reviewed in 2010. This particular version has limited appeal for me in terms of the soloists, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording for Teldec is a good deal more interesting and has been re-released as part of the ‘Das Alte Werk’ series.

This is my first encounter with the Signum Classics Mozart series, and I am completely sold. This is ‘early music’ Mozart in terms of scale and accompaniment, but by no means unconventional in terms of vocal delivery. I can imagine it being comparable with the premiere at the Archbishop’s palace, but probably more polished. There is no clumping around on stage and the atmosphere is decidedly studio as opposed to ‘live’ but there is still a crisp sense of vibrancy in the performance, and the acoustic is perfectly spacious. Presentation with thorough notes and libretto in Italian and English is beyond reproach, though the chunky booklet will fall out of the foldout package if inverted.

Dominy Clements
Previous review: Simon Thompson

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