Friday, July 20, 2018

Merola’s Delightful Account of Early Mozart

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the 2018 Summer Festival of the Merola Opera Program presented the first of two performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K.208 opera in two acts, Il re pastore (the shepherd king). Mozart was nineteen years old when he composed this opera on a commission to honor the visit of the Archduke Maximilian Francis of Austria to Salzburg. The libretto was written by Pietro Metastasio, who took Torquato Tasso’s Aminta as his source. Metastasio’s text was subsequently edited by Giambattista Varesco.

The Wikipedia page for Il re pastore describes it as an opera seria, suggesting a contrast to the more comic rhetoric of Mozart’s previous K. 196 opera, La finta giardiniera (the pretend garden-girl), which he had composed several months earlier, described on the title page of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe score as “drama giocoso.” Nicholas Muni staged K. 196 for Merola in the summer of 2012; and, while he did not downplay the “giocoso” elements, his approach to the “drama” was gut-wrenchingly intense. By way of contrast, Tara Faircloth’s staging of K. 208 dispensed with almost all of the “seria” elements (except for honoring the da capo structure of the arias), establishing the element of farce from the very opening gestures and maintaining the comic rhetoric with impeccable timing and prodigious diversity in every element of the plot structure.

Clearly, there was nothing comic about Tasso’s source, which dealt with the aftermath of the conquest of Sidon (now in southern Lebanon) by Alexander the Great. Tasso’s title character is a shepherd, who is discovered to be the rightful heir to Sidon, an ancestry that is revealed in the libretto through Agenore, a Sidonian aristocrat. The libretto thus turns Tasso into an anticipation of W. S. Gilbert; and, when it comes to who loves whom, we may as well be in the Venice of The Gondoliers as in Sidon. 

Aminta is in love with the shepherdess Elisa, whose father has consented to the marriage. Meanwhile, Agenore has fallen in love with Tamiri, daughter of Stratone, the tyrant who ruled Sidon until Alexander’s invasion. Seeing himself as a benevolent conqueror, Alexander (Alessandro in the libretto) turns the rule of Sidon over to Aminta and arranges his wedding to Tamiri, presumably as a way to win the approval of the Sidonian population. Fortunately, by the time of the finale of the second act, Aminta has won approval for his marriage to Elisa, leaving Agenore free to express his love for Tamiri. Tamiri’s noble descent is honored by Alessandro promising to turn the rule of his next conquest over to Agenore and Tamiri.

Faircloth’s staging of this topsy-turvy unfolding of events was so convincing that it is hard to imagine this opera being given a more serious interpretation. Granted, the music itself tends to follow the necessary formality of seria rhetoric. However, under the musical leadership of Stephen Stubbs, conducting from a fortepiano, the music was given a brisk account, whose energy never short-changed the rapid-fire delivery of the madcap elements unfolding up on the stage.

Note that, in the above summary of the plot, there are only five characters; and that is the entire cast of the opera. The role of Aminta was written for soprano voice, originally sung by the castrato Tommaso Consoli. Last night the part was taken by Cheyanne Coss, whose “trouser” costuming by Callie Floor required only slight suspension of disbelief. The two female roles were also written for soprano, taken by Patricia Westley (Elisa) and Simone McIntosh (Tamiri). Both Agenore and Alessandro were sung by tenors, Charles Sy and Zhengyi Bai, respectively. The absence of any low voices suggests further evidence that this opera was never intended to be as “seria” as the Wikipedia author would have us believe. Indeed, given some of the weak character traits shoved off on tenors in Mozart’s more “mature” operas, last night was rather a pleasure to encounter tenors singing the roles of characters with a bit more substance, even if the context was a farcical one!

The happily-ever-after finale, when Elisa (Patricia Westley) and Aminta (Cheyanne Coss) look down on the “other happy couple,” Agenore (Charles Sy) and Tamiri (Simone McIntosh) and a proudly satisfied Alessandro (Zhengyi Bai) (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the Merola Opera Program)

It is also worth dwelling a bit on where Mozart was in his development in 1775, given how well we know what he would later be doing. Those who really know their Mozart will have no trouble detecting seeds of what would subsequently emerge in future compositions while listening to both the instrumental and vocal lines. Furthermore, those “anticipations” are not limited to opera, since I was able to detect at least one seed that would later emerge in a violin concerto. As a result, the very act of listening to this music, regardless of what is happening on stage, makes for a thoroughly engaging encounter with “the once and future Mozart.”

Still, Faircloth’s staging the was element that carried the rhetorical spirit of this music from start to finish, never interrupted by any dull moments. Stubbs may have guaranteed that Mozart’s music was never short-changed. However, Faircloth was the one who made the experience a memorable one.

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