The Shepherd King Reigns

Michael Zwiebach on September 25, 2007
Sometimes a creative artist produces a work that releases more energy and inspiration than it costs, and suggests paths to the future, as well. Mozart's Il rè pastore (The shepherd king) is a case in point. The 1775 serenata, or modestly sized serious opera, is filled with glorious music from beginning to end, particularly in the second act. It contains percursors to Mozart's penultimate opera, La clemenza di Tito (The clemency of Titus, 1791), and some of its ideas were recycled into Idomeneo (1781). His creative powers stimulated, Mozart went on to write his five violin concertos, the marvelous "Sparrow" Mass (K. 220/196b), and a wealth of other music later that same year. Just as Aminta, the shepherd king of the opera's title, goes through a transformative rite of passage, so Mozart passed, in this work, from apprentice to master. It was therefore welcome that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and its music director, Nicholas McGegan, decided to revive Il rè pastore, heard on Saturday at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. That they did so in such spectacular fashion probably won more than a few converts to this magically lyrical opera. The story of the opera's libretto, which was written in 1751 by Metastasio, the preeminent librettist of the time, is unusually simple. Alexander the Great conquers the kingdom of Sidon, deposing a usurping tyrant. But instead of annexing Sidon, he chooses to restore to the throne Aminta, the surviving son of the legitimate ruler. For his own protection, Aminta was reared by a shepherd, ignorant of his royal heritage. He loves Elisa, a noble lady. The dead tyrant's daughter, Tamiri, loves Agenore, Alexander's companion-in-arms. After a brief mix-up, the two pairs end up happily married.

Constant Hero

Aminta was portrayed by Lisa Saffer, in the evening's standout performance. She was completely in character, not an easy thing to manage in concert opera, and her singing was technically secure and nuanced. She was entirely at home, and betrayed no effort in the ornamental runs, which Mozart wrote for his castrato star, Tommaso Consoli. Her enunciation of the text was near-perfect. And she delivered the showstopping rondo "L'amerò sarò costante" (I shall love her and be constant) with unaffected emotion and subtle phrasing, finishing with a superb cadenza (her own, perhaps?). Heidi Grant Murphy, the evening's Elisa, has a beautiful tone quality to her voice, and she blended effectively with Saffer in their duet. She is a confident and stylistically secure Mozartean, and dispatched Elisa's coloratura without breaks in the line. But she was occasionally wayward in her pitch, she overstressed her vowels (not necessary with Metastasio's mellifluous Italian), resulting in flabby enunciation, and her singing and acting were not specific enough. Iain Paton sang Alessandro, in many ways the focal character, with a generosity to match the idealized nature of the character. Legato phrasing molded the dramatic, vocal runs into an overall line. He has excellent enunciation, undisturbed in the upper vocal registers, which he handles gracefully. But he was terribly unconvincing as a king. He slouched, he played for laughs, he delivered some lines offhandedly, and in general came off like a henchman from The Sopranos. Undoubtedly a stage director would fix this in a full production, but a more military bearing might have improved his performance. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore has a large voice for Mozart, though she handles it adroitly and her singing is smooth and stylish, with an easy, unforced upper register. Her characterization of Tamiri was good enough in the concert setting, and she gave a finely shaded portrayal of Tamiri's anguish at the prospect of being parted from her lover. Michael Slattery's Agenore was boldly acted and nicely sung. He has a lighter-weight voice than the other singers, yet he was totally committed to his role, and Agenore's second act aria revealing his lover's torments was strikingly intense. His love song to Tamiri was delicate and full of feeling, a fine example of a singer finding specificity in a general situation.

Yet Again, Superb Instrumental Backup

It almost goes without saying that the orchestra produced another great performance, reflecting McGegan's enthusiasm and sui generis body language. At the beginning of the overture, it produced a crescendo of impressive dimensions, and from there on the players got better, pouncing on every entrance and cue, and delivering extraordinary rhythmic precision and vitality. The slightly expanded string section exhibited its usual polished sheen of sound. Stephen Schultz and Mindy Rosenfeld did lovely work on the flute duos in the first number and Alexander's second aria. Katherine Kyme played the violin solos in Aminta's showpiece rondo with ecstatically beautiful tone. And if you weren't there to see percussionist Todd Manley play his own reconstruction of an 18th-century "Jingling Johnny" (a pole hung with bells and other sounding objects) in the Turkish march that opens the second act, well, your musical education is still incomplete.