The Mostly Mozart Festival is 37 and still growing. Among the most anticipated additions this year is the Festival's first fully-staged opera‹Il re pastore‹a rarely performed work written by the 19-year-old Mozart in 1775 in honor of the visit of Archduke Maximilian Franz to Salzburg. The libretto by Pietro Metastasio tells the story of a shepherd, in love with a nymph, who discovers he is the rightful heir to a kingdom lately liberated from a usurper by Alexander the Great. He refuses to renounce his love for the sake of the crown, but not to worry‹all comes out right in the end, thanks to the wisdom of the Macedonian empire builder.
Mozart wrote light, enchanting arias for this short, two-act "serenata." Usually classified among his lesser works, the piece nevertheless has abundant marks of genius. Mozart lovers will readily identify melodic buds and harmonic devices that flowered fully in the master's later operas. The one aria that has found its way frequently to the concert stage‹"L'amerò, sarò costante"‹is a gem.
Auspiciously, Nicholas McGegan, with his Philharmonia Baroque, will lead the performances, which are on August 12, 14, and 16 at LaGuardia Concert Hall. Much lauded for their extensive work with Handel and other Baroque repertoire, McGegan and the San Francisco-based ensemble have successfully extended their range to Mozart. Reached by telephone in Toronto, the conductor expresses delight that he would have the opportunity to add this piece to the list of Mozart operas he has performed. He is also happy to be reunited with artists in the cast, three of whom he's worked with before‹soprano Lisa Saffer, who plays Aminta (the Shepherd King), and tenors Mark Padmore (Alessandro) and John Tessier (Agenore). Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy sings Elisa and mezzo Margaret Lattimore is Tamiri.
This production was originally mounted by acclaimed director Mark Lamos for Glimmerglass Opera in 1991, when it was the hit of the season. His staging, in whimsical, colorful sets by John Conklin, elicited this from USA Today's David Patrick Stearns: "Lamos doesn't even try to disguise the opera's artificiality. In fact, he embraces it, making the opera a children's parable about the decisions one is forced to make as maturity sets in."
Presenting a staged opera has long been in the mind of Jane S. Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president of programming, who is in charge of Mostly Mozart. She believes that Mozart's genius, although evident in his orchestral work, is most fully realized in his operas, and she was greatly impressed by the Glimmerglass staging of Il re pastore. The expansion of the Festival's offerings to include staged productions (last year's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato by the Mark Morris Dance Group) and the arrival of conductor Louis Langrée as music director gave added impetus to the project. The French musician, one of Europe's rising young conductors, already has extensive opera credits, having just completed a stint as music director of Glyndebourne Touring Opera and having worked at the major houses in Geneva, Dresden, Paris, and Lyons. He is expected to lead future lyric offerings at Mostly Mozart.
This summer, however, opera will be in the hands of McGegan, who gathered his forces a month before the performances. Philharmonia Baroque, which he has led for the last 17 years, is finely attuned to the conductor's rhythmic verve and brisk tempos. The singers handpicked for this event are all accomplished in the supple vocal style and technique essential to Mozart. McGegan considers Mozart very difficult. "Everything has to be perfect, but that's only the start," he says. "There has to be a conversation‹it has to move you, make you smile, make you sympathize with the character." He encourages his singers to improvise their own ornamentation saying, "I don't regard myself as a teacher. A conductor is really like a good tailor, his object is to make the ornamentation fit the singer…and possibly add dimension" to the dramatic, emotional context of the scene.
By making sure a stellar ensemble launches its first staged opera, Mostly Mozart is whetting the audience's appetite for more. Moss hints at possible imports from the Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, and Göttingen Festivals, as well as original productions. This presentation at the 1,000-seat LaGuardia Concert Hall certainly provides Mozart with an appropriately cozy setting, but an even more exciting prospect looms. Now nearing completion, the Rose Theater at the new home of Jazz at Lincoln Center in the AOL-Time Warner complex at Columbus Circle will be used for future opera presentations as well. It boasts a large stage, state-of-the-art technical facilities, and an intimate, 1,100-seat auditorium. It's a dream come true for early-music lovers, and Mostly Mozart will lead the way there.
Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga is a freelance writer on the performing arts and New York correspondent for Tokyo's Journal of Professional Lighting.