Arts & Events

Mozart’s Rarely Seen IL RE PASTORE A Hit at Merola Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday July 22, 2018 - 11:27:00 AM

Mozart wrote Il Re Pastore/The Shepherd King in 1775, shortly after Lucio Silla (1773) and La Finta Giardiniera (1775). Set to a late libretto by the famed Metastasio, Il Re Pastore is officially an opera seria, though Mozart termed it a drama per musica. However, it is so full of the 19 year-old Mozart’s wit and ebullience that it hardly sounds, or plays, like an opera seria. This is especially true in the lively, highly diverting production of Il Re Pastore given by the company of young musicians of Merola Opera, who opened this show on Thursday evening, July 19, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. A second performance of this opera is set for 2:00 pm Saturday, July 21, at the same venue. 

For some reason, Il Re Pastore is rarely performed. I last saw this opera perhaps five years ago at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, where a counter-tenor sang the role of Aminta, the shepherd king. In the current Merola production of Il Re Pastore, the lead is sung as a trousers role by soprano Cheyanne Coss. Interestingly, Mozart wrote this opera for three sopranos and two tenors. In the original production in Salzburg, the lead role was sung by a secco castrato. Here, Cheyanne Coss sang with a voice that was at home in the lower register of a soprano; and in the duet that closes Act I, Cheyanne Coss’s voice sang below that of Patricia Westley, who was fetching in the role of Elise, Aminta’s beloved.  

Patricia Westley was, in fact, the star of this show. Singing with a bright, bell-like tone, Patricia Westley depicted Elise as a flirtatious lass in a pink dress and sporting a sun-hat with a pink ribbon down the back. Elise is head over heels in love with the humble shepherd Aminta, whom she has charmed ever since she was a young child. Aminta returns her love, and the two can hardly wait to be married. They need only the consent of Elise’s father, and though Aminta worries that his lowly status as a shepherd might not meet Elise’s father’s approval, Elise assures him that her father will consent. As for herself, Elise says, she admires Aminta’s simple but healthy way of life and needs only his love to be happy. 

Il Re Pastore is set in Sidon, the Phoenician city on the Mediterranean coast. In Metastasio’s libretto, Alexander the Great has just conquered Sidon, and with the help of his general, Agenor, Alexander seeks to restore rule of Sidon to the city’s missing heir. Agenor and Alexander believe that the humble shepherd Aminta is indeed the missing heir. So Agenor approaches Aminta and asks politely if Aminta would like to meet Alexander. Thinking it over for a brief second, Aminta answers, “No.” Taken aback, Agenor asks why, especially since it might help Aminta move up in the world. “I’m happy with my life as it is,” replies Aminta. “With my sheep and my beloved Elise by my side, I have everything I could want.” On hearing this reply, both Agenor and the disguised Alexander are impressed with the noble thinking of Aminta, and they secretly plan to offer him the kingship of Sidon.  

Alexander, or Alessandro in Italian, is sung by Chinese tenor Zhengye Bai, and Agenor is sung by Canadian tenor Charles Sy. In the witty, playful stage direction by Tara Faircloth, Alexander is depicted as quite the narcissist, forever having a hand-mirror at the ready to admire his countenance, smooth his hair, and tweak his mustache. Alexander is served by four men in suits, ties, and sun-glasses who look for all the world like American Secret Service agents assigned to guard the President. As Alexander, Zhengye Bai sang with fervor the Act I aria about his ability to calm every storm and win every battle. In the role of Agenor, Charles Sy played it mainly for laughs, depicting Agenor as an inept flunkie to Alexander’s conquering hero. However, the one thing Agenor cares about is his hidden love for Tamiri, daughter of Sidon’s previous king who was recently killed in battle. When the disguised Tamiri appears before Agenor, he quickly reassures her of his love. Tamiri is here sung by Canadian mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh, who possesses a lush, full voice with enormous range. Her one big aria was a highlight of the show, and as the opera went on I kept hoping for another extended opportunity to hear Simone McIntosh sing. Sure enough, one arrived in Act II, when, outraged that Alexander has decreed that Tamiri shall wed Aminta and be his queen, she upbraids Agenor for failing to disabuse his boss of this notion. When in reply Agenor calls her cruel, Tamiri asks incredulously how he can call her cruel when he has cruelly acquiesced in allowing Alexander to betroth her to Aminta?  

Agenor is non-plussed at this outburst from Tamiri; and when she departs in a huff Agenor launches into an aria full of pain and hurt. Here Charles Sy almost literally chewed the scenery while pouring out his pain. He threw chairs, he dumped clothes on the floor, and he tore a bouquet of flowers to shreds and threw them all over the place. When he left the stage in a rage. Alexander’s four flunkie guards had to use a broom and dust pan to gather up the detritus.  

Similarly, when Elise got wind of Alexander’s plan to wed Aminta to Tamiri, Elise was confused, offended, and above all, furious. So she took her fury out on Agenor. Singing like a spitfire, Elise berates Agenor and literally ties him up and gags him with a hankerchief over his mouth. As Elise, Patricia Westley really did herself proud in this aria. She was outstanding!  

Things get sorted out in the end. When Alexander realizes the depth of love that binds Aminta to Elise and Agneor to Tamiri, the magnanimous conquering hero presides over a double wedding, making Aminta and Elise king and queen of Sidon, and promising that Agenor and Tamiri will rule over the next city he will soon conquer.  

Mozart’s music in Il Re Pastore is noteworthy for its purity of melodic line. The orchestration makes good use of wind instruments, especially the flute, which accompanies one of Alexander’s heroic arias. Aminta’s lovely Act II aria, “L’amerò, sarò costante”/”I’ll love her always and be faithful,” features a fine violin solo accompanying the voice in concertante style. Conductor Stephen Stubbs led the orchestra from the harpsichord. Scenic Designer was Laure Fine Hawkes, Costume Designer was Callie Floor, and Lighting Designer was Eric Watkins. When a rarely performed opera receives such a marvelous production as this one of Mozart’s Il Re Pastore, one has to wonder why it is so rarely encountered on the stage? 


ERRATA: In my July 6 review of Merola’s Schwabacher Summer Concert, I mistakenly wrote that Acts 1 and 3 were performed of Puccini’s Il Tabarro. What was performed were Scenes 1 and 3 of Act 2.