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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]

Mozart was 18 years old when he wrote Il Re Pastore. It was pretty much the only opera he wrote for Salzburg. Famously, the city did not have an opera house - which was one of the chief reasons why Mozart wanted to get out and find employment elsewhere - but this opera was commissioned by Prince Archbishop Colloredo, Mozart's hated employer, as entertainment for a royal visit by the Archduke Maximilian Franz in 1775. It was performed in the Knights' Hall in the Archbishop's Residenz. It can't stand comparison with Mozart's later stage masterpieces, but at this point in his career Mozart had already written several of his operas, concertos and symphonies, so its level of accomplishment is already pretty staggering. You can hear some of those other youthful works coming through in places. The opening of Aminta's aria Aer tranquillo, for example, sounds remarkably similar to that of the G major violin concerto, which would follow that same year.

Classical Opera is working its way through a project of recording all of Mozart's operas. This is the first of them that I have come across, but I sincerely hope it won't be the last. They treat this work seriously on its own terms, and they reveal its many beauties with a touch of love. The prime mover in the operation is conductor Ian Page, who also writes the scholarly booklet note; texts and translations are provided too. His choices of tempi always feel intrinsically right, and he shapes the sound with real affection for the material, avoiding any spurious comparisons with the later masterpieces. The orchestral sound is also superb, apparent right from the fizzing bustle of the Overture. The period instruments are an important part of the sound, but not the dominant aspect: instead it's the light, agile conducting, keeping everything moving at an appropriate pace, and the lovely colour of both the strings and, especially, the winds which add lively good humour to the sound palette.

The singers are fully on board, too. Sarah Fox, who plays the Shepherd King himself, opens the opera with a lovely aria to the wandering brook, and demonstrates a richness and delight of voice that will characterise the whole recording. A highlight is her Act Two Rondeaux, where she weaves in and out of the orchestral texture with great beauty that, at times, put me in mind of Sesto and Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito. As Elisa, Ailish Tynan is bright and girlish. Her first aria, singing of the joys of bucolic love, is perhaps a mite shrill at the top, but there is an innocence to her tone - and accuracy to her coloratura - that renders any reservations irrelevant. Her main second act aria, Barbaro, oh Dio, is full of pathos and draws much subtlety from her voice. Anna Devin has a more opulent voice than either of the other sopranos, and this makes her Tamiri stand out well from them. After all, her character has suffered more, with her father having lost the throne of Sidon, so it is quite fitting that there should be higher drama in her interpretation, and her second act aria is a highlight.

John Mark Ainsley finds the correct balance between heroic and light in his role of Alexander the Great, demonstrated in the very self-disciplined way he handles his first aria Si spande al sole in faccia and the clearly defined lines of his big second act aria Se vicendo vi rendo felice. That said, he is a bit willowy in the extended coloratura of Voi, che fausti ognor donate. The lesser tenor role of Agenore is taken very beautifully by Benjamin Hulett, whose sweet, honeyed voice makes a good contrast with Ainsley's. It is perhaps a little less suited to his Sturm und Drang aria in the second act, which sounds a little out of place in the context, though that’s Mozart’s fault, not Hulett’s.

In the booklet note, Page makes the reasonable point that, in the first act, "each aria is an expression of joy, contentment or devotion, yet Mozart still manages to create enormous variety and contrast within this framework." When the dramatic upsets of the second act enter, and they're still pretty mild by comparison, the energy is handled well, and this is symptomatic of the extremely sympathetic reading that Page provides. A great success, this set is well worth checking out.

Simon Thompson



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