Buxton International Festival – Mozart’s Il re pastore – with Katie Coventry & Ellie Neate; directed by Jack Furness; conducted by Adrian Kelly


Il re pastore – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Giambattista Varesco after Metastasio based on Torquato Tasso’s Aminta [sung in Italian, with English side-titles]

Aminta – Katie Coventry
Elisa – Ellie Neate
Tamiri – Olivia Carrell
Agenore – George Curnow
Alessandro – Joseph Doody

Northern Chamber Orchestra
Adrian Kelly

Jack Furness – Director & Video
Hannah Wolfe – Set & Costumes
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 9 July, 2023
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, UK

Mozart’s Il re pastore (1775) stands in a line of artistic works which contrast the innocent pleasures of an existence at one with nature, with the tensions and artificiality of life at the centre of power (necessarily in the city). As the setting of an adapted libretto by Metastasio, its theme is typical of slightly earlier operas in the Baroque period, exemplifying and lauding the virtuous exercise of power. But its pared down structure is less characteristic of that type of opera seria with fewer twists and complications in the plot. Indeed, as a stage-work written for the visit of a Habsburg prince to Salzburg, it is more a serenata or festa teatrali which were designed for such occasional purposes rather than a more extended run of performances. Jack Furness, the director of this production, rightly identifies that, accordingly, a particular mood or atmosphere pervades the work – the condition of harmony with nature – in place of the cascade of contrasting human emotions and passions which feature within the more furious sequence of arias in such opera serie by Mozart’s immediate predecessors.

The characters are cast in historically accurate costumes of the later eighteenth-century and people an essentially empty stage. The production’s concept is set, in place of that, within the video montage of natural scenery behind them throughout the performance. The scenes were recorded by Furness around the Brecon Beacons as well as the Peak District surrounding Buxton and draw upon similar time lapse videos by Bill Viola and David Hockney to incite our response to a contemporary and more localised image of the natural order that is so intrinsic an idea to the work. The backdrop usually juxtaposes at least two different images together or sets two or three shots of the same scene from different angles. That reminds us of the importance of perspective not only in direct, outward viewing, but presumably also upon inner personality and character as these unfold during the plot (its few points of drama revolve around the discovery that the shepherd Aminta is the rightful, disguised king of Sidon, whom Alexander the Great seeks to reinstate after seeing off Strato its usurper; but he then goes on to suggest that Aminta weds Tamiri, the daughter of Strato, not realising either that she is already tied to Agenore, or that Aminta loves Elisa).

If Mozart’s opera is also not a typical version of a Classical pastoral (which usually end in tragedy) since nothing apparently worse happens, ultimately, than that Aminta is recalled from his rustic bliss and returned to the intrigues of power, then Furness’s vision of the work perhaps subtly qualifies the order and stability it eulogises. Although the video images are certainly a more naturalistic representation of the landscape than either the painted scenes of stage sets or the mechanical recreations of sea waves common in eighteenth-century theatres, they are not quite the idealised Arcadian, immutable paradise of the paintings of Lorraine or Poussin, or landscapes as realised by Mozart’s older English contemporary, ‘Capability’ Brown. Rather, the movement of breezes among the leaves, and the flowing water of rivers and sea hint at changeability and transition; and occasional glimpses of the sheer summits and slopes of the Brecons or the Peak District hint at something just a little bleak and rough, or even ‘awe-ful’ and ‘Sublime’ in Edmund Burke’s more disturbing sense. Alexander also brings an apple in his first confrontation with Aminta, suggested an impending fall in this apparent garden of Eden.

Paradoxically the performance from Adrian Kelly and the Northern Chamber Orchestra provides a poised sonic backdrop, articulating a happy medium between full-sized, modern orchestras and smaller, period-instrument ensembles. The Overture is just on the moderate, right side of too brisk, and nuanced phrasing ensures that it doesn’t seem a motoric rush. Throughout the arias, ensemble remains lucid, doing justice to what is perhaps the first opera in which Mozart’s incomparable style comes to the fore – more instrumentally focused than his earlier examples (if not yet with the full symphonic rigour of the later masterpieces) with Aminta’s first aria even famously quoting the opening of the Violin Concerto No. 3 from the same year, and a later number with an extensive violin solo.

That provides sympathetic support for a lively and charismatic cast, led by Katie Coventry’s urgent account of Aminta, importing drama and tension into the music rather than simply expressing the text’s eulogy of relaxed, rural leisure. Ellie Neate’s Elisa is lighter-voiced and playful, but the two blend exquisitely in their duet which ends Act One. If Joseph Doody is a little dry and reedy as Alexander, he is nonetheless authoritative and vociferous, commanding with a certain degree of levity. Where George Curnow’s Agenore is stern and forceful, Olivia Carrell is an allaying, tender musical influence as his lover Tamiri. Altogether this is an imaginative recreation of a rarely encountered musical drama by Mozart which was possibly not even staged or acted at its premiere, and so it constructs an engaging dialogue between his time and ours.

Further performances to July 20

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