Three sopranos and two tenors. Does that chorus-less combination without basses, baritones and mezzos to anchor and harmonize, make a satisfying opera?
If it’s an aria-rich piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of course. Written when he was 19 in 1775, The Royal Shepherd (Il Re Pastore) is a rarely heard Mozart opera–unlike his Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and the tireless The Magic Flute.
The opera’s unfamiliarity was part of its fresh appeal at the first-of-the season OrpheusPDX performance Aug. 3 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall (it was repeated Aug. 6). Increasing its likeability were the bright, assured voices; the playful sets and comic tone; and a timely update that includes a marriage between two women. Perhaps Mozart would have approved. He was a visionary and a liberal-minded Freemason, as were many musicians.
OrpheusPDX is in its second summer season at Lincoln Hall, touted for its superb acoustics, excellent sight lines, and intimate size (the space holds 465 people). Founder Christopher Mattaliano has largely chosen his two August operas to preserve – or to bring back –the artform as an intimate experience, and his picks to date have included an oldie-goldie and contemporary piece. The second of this season will be Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, Aug. 24 and 27. The inaugural 2022 season staged Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Philip Glass’s Fall of the House of Usher.
A better title for this summer’s updated two-act opera set on a modern-day “Pan-Mediterranean” farm and surroundings, corrugated buildings and all, would be The Royal Shepherdess. The main character, Aminta, was a pants role in the 18th-century version with a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, where the protagonist sang soprano. This time the Royal “Shepherdess” (sung confidently by soprano Katherine Whyte), who has been stashed away on a sheep farm since childhood, remains a full-fledged woman throughout, pursues her childhood love with another woman, Elisa (soprano Holly Flack), and marries her. That’s the major modern twist of this piece, stage-directed by Dan Rigazzi, who has a resume that includes directing a number of Metropolitan Opera shows.
The plot begins when Alessandro (Alexander the Great) takes over the tiny country of Sidon and, in good faith and wisdom, wants a local person to be in charge. But Sidon has been hiding the rightful “king” Aminta as a shepherd, who doesn’t have a clue what his/her/their background is. When approached by ruler Alessandro (rangy coloratura tenor Omar Najmi) and his phalanx of silent camo-suited (and comical) broad-shouldered “men” in sunglasses, Aminta wants nothing to do with leadership. She prefers herding a flock of sheep, folding the laundry (drying clothes are part of the first act’s clean, clever set by Peter Ksander), and hanging out with her longtime girlfriend, Elisa. “I don’t need wealth,“ Whyte sings in her lush soprano, despite Alessandro’s protests. He insists those who don’t want or care about power make the best leaders. His hair is sprinkled with a touch of gray to make him seem older, though the tenor is boyish-looking and has to work hard to appear authoritative (he pretty much pulls it off). He’s often surrounded by three hard-headed sopranos, each determined to get her way. If his boyishness diminished gravitas, his strong, flexible voice made up for it.
In part, the opera is about good leadership, but it’s more about the choice between duty and love – or freedom – and both Aminta and Elisa protest their love being cut short. Turns out there’s another romance transpiring between Tamiri (soprano Madeline Ross) and Aginore (tenor Brandon Michael), who are in a kind of unstable love, and whose roles are sung by performers with rich, convincing voices. Alessandro wants Aminta to marry Tamiri, which further complicates things, and brings on temper tantrums, especially from Elisa (Flack) who can turn a scream into a string of high-register notes. Each soprano has an extended vocal range, but hers is the most impressive, and because Flack is such a good actress, she can bring drama–whether comedy or tragedy or in between–to the scene.
However, the famous and oft-sung aria from the second act, “L’amerò, sarò constante” (“I’ll love her, I’ll remain faithful”), that Whyte performs takes the prize for “one of the most beautiful pieces Mozart ever composed,” Mattaliano, a self-confessed diehard Mozart fan, wrote in a post-opera email. “It’s often done separately in concert by sopranos, which is how I’ve become familiar with it and loved it over the years. It’s wonderful to hear it in the context of the opera for which it was composed.”
That it was.
An earlier and moving second-act scene shows Aminta being dressed, reluctantly, to serve as king, her breasts bound. Whyte does a good job of expressing distressed obedience and sadness at the same time, standing defiant in her white undershirt.
Yet, the opera ends favoring desire over duty, and both couples get their way, but Aminta does take on royal responsibilities once her marriage difficulties are resolved. Just goes to prove you have to have a happy heart to do meaningful work, something Mozart figured out centuries ago.
The opera stops short of sentimentality (“a failure of feeling,” as poet Wallace Stevens describes sentimentality). With its glorification of pastoral life and emphasis on heart-felt feelings, the opera could have edged perilously close to falling into corny romanticism, but its pace, humor and friskiness prevent it from tripping into that trap.
Nicholas Fox, usually an assistant opera conductor and chorus master, directed the orchestra. He threw some jubilant boxing punches in the orchestra pit to show how much he loved bringing alive a mostly unknown Mozart opera. ( I think that’s why he threw them.) He also played the harpsichord, which had plenty of sparkling music in this opera.
There were some minor screw-ups with the supra-titles at the beginning of each act, but no big deal. Such small bumps can’t bring down a lighthearted, tuneful production like this one.
Lit by Connie Yun’s signature unfussy incandescent style, Shepherd was further shaped into an endearing bucolic exuberant piece. Even birds flew across the sky-stage in the second act, and the sopranos and tenors, singing together in a joyous full-throated ensemble piece, left the audience in a light, bright midsummer place as the confetti floated down.