Il rè pastore – Serenata in two acts to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio adapted by Giovanni Battista Varesco [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Aminta – Martene Grimson
Elisa – Elizabeth Bailey
Tamiri – Mary Bevan
Allesandro – Thomas Hobbs
Agenore – Alexander Sprague
Orchestra of Classical Opera Company
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 11 November, 2011
Venue: Hall One, Kings Place, London
In March 1775 the nineteen-year-old Mozart was commissioned to write a celebratory work to mark the passage of Archduke Maximilian through Salzburg, and to do so in short order. Within six weeks he had adapted a reach-me-down libretto (Metastasio’s text had already been set to music on thirteen previous occasions, including a version by Gluck), then composed, cast, rehearsed and performed the piece – to apparent archducal satisfaction. Termed ‘Serenata’ rather than opera, Il rè pastore (The Shepherd King) may originally have been performed in concert form, as it was on this occasion by Classical Opera Company.
This tale of Aminta, the rightful heir to the throne of Sidon who has been brought up in bucolic obscurity, may be an inconsequential trifle, but it is a charming hook on which to hang a succession of attractive arias. Aminta loves Elisa and Agenore loves Tamiri, but silly old Alexander the Great (Alessandro) takes a while to cotton on. Never mind: by the end the couples have been rearranged to general satisfaction and, as a bonus, everybody gets a kingdom.
Alexander Sprague is an emerging tenor of great poise and even greater promise. His mellifluous timbre is ideally suited to early Mozart: in Agenore’s doleful first-Act aria, ‘Per me rispondete’, he coloured and caressed each phrase with loving care, whereas by Act Two he was projecting the young nobleman’s indignation in ‘Sol può dir come si trova’ with agitated passion. Sprague’s fellow-tenor Thomas Hobbs brought a touch of the buffo to Alessandro and earned some unexpected laughs along the way, while Mary Bevan, dynamic and vocally radiant, ensured that the otherwise colourless Tamiri dominated attention during her two arias. She will be a fine Pamina one day. It is sobering to think that, only last year, these three young singers were performing together (as students) in a Royal Academy of Music production of Britten’s Albert Herring; yet now here they are, professional to their fingertips, bringing Mozart to life. Ian Page deserves great credit for nurturing young singers in this way.
The indisposition of Ferrier Award-winner Sarah-Jane Brandon prompted Martene Grimson as a late replacement. The Australian soprano had previously sung Aminta with these forces five years ago at the Barbican Centre, and her experience, confidence and interpretational subtlety helped this delightful score to take flight. Grimson gave a supreme account of ‘Aer tranquillo’ (which the composer later reshaped into the first movement of his G major Violin Concerto, K216), while in the celebrated ‘L’amerò, sarò cosante’ (a hymn to constancy, practically a duet for voice and solo violin, the latter lightly played by Matthew Truscott) she made light of the music’s challenges. If Elizabeth Bailey made comparatively heavy weather of her role as Aminta’s inamorata, Elisa (the runs in particular were hesitant and smudgy), she did at least invest the character with a plateful of personality.
Under Page’s high-octane direction an orchestra of incisive ‘authentic’ instrumentalists matched the singers for beauty and sparkle. Just occasionally I wished that Page would bend with the breeze a little; but at least the energy never flagged, not even during the recitatives, the excellent continuo (Jan Waterfield on harpsichord and cellist Piroska Baranyay) left to their own devices. This was an evening of the sweetest musical delight, at once elevating and elating.