Edward Elwyn Jones, Music Director of the Harvard Radcliffe Chorus and organist and choirmaster at Harvard’s Memorial Church, assembled a stellar ensemble consisting of five remarkable singers and the excellent players of the period ensemble Grand Harmonie in a concert performance of Mozart’s Il re pastore (The Shepherd King) at Paine Hall on Friday.
The last opera Mozart wrote before Idomeneo, Il re pastore was commissioned for performance during a visit to Salzburg in April 1775 by the Habsburg prince Maximilian Franz. The main source for its text was an abbreviated two-act version of a three-act libretto written for the Viennese court by Pietro Metastasio in 1751. Both libretti harked back to the famous pastoral play Aminta, written in 1573 by Torquato Tasso for performance at the court of Ferrara. Pastoral topics flattered rulers with the conceit that they, like simple shepherds, were humble, faithful, and solicitous for the well-being of their flock, and thus “naturally” called upon to exercise power in the best of all possible worlds. Such entertainments were often designated serenata rather than opera, and written for semi-staged private performance at court. Like its predecessors, Il re pastore celebrates the “natural” virtues of the Golden Age of Arcadia. As the serenata opens, Alessandro, King of Macedonia (based on the historical Alexander the Great), has liberated the kingdom of Sidon from a tyrannical ruler; the true heir to the throne of Sidon is rumored to be living incognito. Meanwhile the shepherd Aminta and the noble nymph Elisa declare their love for each other, as do the nobleman Agenore and the fugitive princess Tamiri, herself disguised as a shepherdess. When Aminta is revealed as the true king of Sidon, Alessandro tries to set matters right by marrying him to Tamiri, who turns out to be the daughter of the deposed tyrant and thus of higher rank than the nymph Elisa. Sorely tested, Aminta reveals his true nobility by preferring love over status. Alessandro relents, the true lovers are reunited, and Aminta is proclaimed a Shepherd King.
Mozart’s ability to absorb and imitate operatic conventions from a young age is well documented. Dr. Daines Barrington described the nine-year-old boy seated at the harpsichord and enthusiastically improvising first a love song, then a rage aria, with astonishing ease. At 19, he had made the language of Italian opera his own, having already composed four serious and two comic operas. One Italian convention assigned the romantic male lead to a soprano, who could be either a castrato or a cross-dressing female singer. As it happened, a renowned soprano castrato was brought to Salzburg from Munich for the royal visit, and honored by Mozart with three big arias (as against two each for the other characters). Dressed in jacket and breeches, Dominique Labelle sang the part of Aminta with keen sensitivity to the contrast between her character’s rustic guise and his underlying nobility. After a spirited, fast-paced overture, her first aria, in a lilting siciliano rhythm, was a gentle song that evoked the outdoors with its accompaniment of flutes and horns, and murmuring violins imitating a rustling stream. Her second aria depicted Aminta in full heroic mode, with dizzying coloratura passages, expertly sung, that identified his true nobility even while extolling a shepherd’s untrammeled life. Finally, the simple melody of the rondò “L’amerò, sara costante” (I shall love her, I shall be constant) revealed Aminta’s innermost emotions in an exquisite dialogue with principal violinist Sarah Darling, while Grand Harmonie’s reliable and piquant ensemble of flutes, English horns, bassoons, horns, and muted strings provided appropriate “pastoral” instrumental color.
As Elisa, Amanda Forsythe’s brilliant, clear soprano and flexible technique were more than a match for the virtuosic passage work of her two big arias. Even more captivating was the expressive musicality with which she shaped every phrase. In her first aria, in march tempo with horns and oboes, short, resolute melodic statements alternated with extravagant roulades; the second, a two-part rage aria, was full of wide leaps tempered by chromatic touches. The duet for Aminta and Elisa that closed the first act was one of the highlights of the evening, its subtly pastoral melodies punctuated by skillfully improvised cadenzas. Elisa’s counterpart and unwilling rival, Tamiri, was sung by Teresa Wakim with compelling virtuosity and affecting beauty of tone. Her Andantino in A major, “Se tu mi fai dono” (If you make a gift of me), was notable for the variety of tone color she employed as her lament increased its intensity. Tenor Jason Budris was a pleasing Agenore in his pastoral love song “Per me rispondete” (Answer for me, fair stars of love), but reached greater emotional heights in “Sol può dir come si trova un amante” (The only one who can say how a lover feels) when, having put duty before love in agreeing that his beloved should become queen to the shepherd king, he bewailed his misfortune in a stormy C minor rage aria to the accompaniment of four horns, oboes, bassoons, and strings. Informed by Agenore that the shepherd Aminta is the true heir to the throne of Sidon, Alessandro, sung with ringing forthrightness by tenor Zachary Wilder, presented himself as a benevolent monarch in a “heroic” da capo aria complete with regal oboes, horns, and trumpets, the violins rivalling his own coloratura.
In typical opera seria style, the arias were strung together with recitatives, but these were by no means perfunctory. Accompanied by Jones at the fortepiano, all five singers delivered their secco recitatives with the expressive immediacy of natural speech, with flexible rhythms articulated by appropriate cadential ornaments; a full printed text with parallel English translation allowed us to follow the (admittedly thin) plot without difficulty. Accompanied recitative, with punctuation and thematic interpolations by the strings, was reserved for moments of heightened emotion, such as the joyous scene for Aminta and Elisa that preceded their duet. The final scene was a triumphant multi-sectioned ensemble, a hint of Mozart’s brilliance to come.