Monday, August 21, 2023

OrpheusPDX crowns Il Re Pastore as a modern political fable

Photo credit - Owen Carey / courtesy of OrpheusPDX

Operagoers may have been tempted to think that an opera from the likes of a teenage Mozart would be a lightweight thing, but in the hands of director Dan Rigazzi, “Il Re Pastore” (“The Royal Shepherd”) offered a fresh look at what it means to rule and who should do it. Rigazzi’s vision of “Il Re Pastore,” presented by OrpheusPDX (August 6) at Lincoln Hall, gave Mozart’s opera a fresh look that made it thought-provokingly relevant. The production was enhanced with Peter Ksander’s efficient modern set and crowned with superb singing and a taut orchestra under conductor Nicholas Fox.

“Il Re Pastore,” written by Mozart in 1775 when he was just 19 years old, uses a libretto by Metastasio, who drew on ancient historians to tell a straightforward tale about love versus duty. The story begins with Alexander the Great (Alessandro in the opera) having freed the kingdom of Sidon from the usurper Strato. With the help of Agenore, Alessandro finds that the shepherd Aminta is the rightful heir but wants Aminta to marry Tamiri, the Strato’s daughter. But Aminta is in love with Elisa, and Agenore is in love with Tamiri. All is resolved after declarations of true love are proclaimed, and an enlightened Alessandro allows the lovers to marry and puts Aminta on the throne of Sidon.

By updating the production, Rigazzi, who is on the staff of the Metropolitan Opera, cleverly took advantage of modern science. That’s how Alessandro became sure that Aminta was the rightful heir. His men confiscated an apple that Aminta had bitten into and sent it to a lab. The resulting DNA report (in big letters on a folder that was given to Alessandro) confirmed her lineage.

Although Aminta is a pants role, in this production Aminta remains a female. When Alessandro asks her to wear a military uniform and assume a man’s look and marry Tamiri before ascending to Sidon’s throne she reluctantly changes garb, but later discards the outfit, realizing that she loves Elisa. That moved the political fable to contemporary times, affirming true love and wise governance in a charming and positive way. That’s a virtuous message for our strident times.
Holly Flack and Katherine Whyte | Photo by Owen Carey / courtesy of OrpheusPDX

Canadian soprano Katherine Whyte created a stellar Aminta, executing a myriad of florid runs with panache and her singing of L'amero saro costante was heart-melting. In the meantime, Whyte deftly mastered a sagacious expression that caused chuckles throughout the hall in the first act when Aminta subtly got Alessandro and his men do work for her by combing wool and snapping beans. Her character’s demeanor also contrasted well with the emotional volatility of Holly Flack’s Elisa, whose scene of rage when told that she could not see Aminta almost stole the show. Flack’s unearthly ability to unleash notes far above high C caused gasps of astonishment from some members of the audience.

Equally outstanding was soprano Madeline Ross, who sparkled in the role of Tamiri, eliciting beautiful passages with ease. Her dramatic flourishes were damped somewhat by the duty-bound Agenore of Brandon Michael. Omar Najmi maintained the dignified high ground as Alessandro, and both men dashed off their filigreed lines with gusto.

Ksander’s set design was a neat package with one building that functioned as a farmhouse in the first act and as a cafĂ© in the second. Outdoor tables and chairs and a screen for the scene when Aminta changes into her military duds were some of the few props needed. On top of that, Connie Yun’s lighting design made it all glow.

A taut orchestra conducted by Nicholas Fox never overpowered the singers. Tempos were smartly judged by Fox, who commanded the harpsichord as well and added a humorous embellishment - like when his fingers raced over the keyboard to accompany one of the characters scurrying around in haste.

Rigazzi’s twist on Mozart’s opera addressed authenticity, integrity, and identity but didn’t shove it down our throats in a heavy-handed manner. The near full-house at Lincoln Hall (with a capacity of 475 seats) rewarded the performance with a standing ovation. That bodes well for OrpheusPDX, which is in its second season under General and Artistic Director Christopher Mattaliano, who led Portland Opera from 2003 to 2019. Up next is Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” will close out for OrpheusPDX’s season with performances on August 24 and 27.

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