Even compared to Mozart early works such as Mitridate and Lucio Silla, his delightful stage serenata Il Re Pastore is a rarity. There is not much of a plot to speak of (basically a couple of connected misunderstandings involving unusually good-intentioned people) and fiendishly difficult vocal parts, but the lack of appeal of a pastoral setting might ultimately be to blame for that. Director Grischa Asagaroff considered a great challenge to respect the original atmosphere and yet to bring some fresh air into it. As an inspiration, he looked up to Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s stagings of Mozart operas. As a result, the story is told without much interference from superimposed concepts other than having it set in a baroque garden stravaganza from which these characters spring into life when unobserved by visitors from our days. The concept – particularly the closing scene – made me think of Tankred Dorst’s staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (without the pretentiousness, of course). In terms of stage direction, the director transformed the libretto’s “awkward” naivete into almost sitcom-like physical comedy. While his primo “uomo” and his primo tenore have a natural instinct for it, the remaining members of the cast looked a bit lost on stage. If everything looks like polite entertainment, one can never blame him for doing exactly what Metastasio probably had in mind. In any case, without cute gestures and green fauns and with a little bit more imagination, the concept might have come to life.
Although William Christie says that Il Re Pastore is a hidden gem among Mozart’s early work, his conducting did not show great affection for the music. Abrasiveness seemed to be the keynote – the overture sounded rough and uncomfortable, arie di bravura received the egg-timer approach and lyrical moments sounded devoid of feeling, especially the Aminta/Elisa duet, which should be the opera’s centerpiece. The exception was – not surprisingly – a L’amerò a tad slow for my ears (I am used to Margaret Price and James Lockhart’s recording when everything sounds flowing and spontaneous). Under these circumstances, singers (with one notable exception) couldn’t help by sounding nervous and often imprecise – the orchestral sound was unpolished and rather cacophonic. Justice be made to concertmaster Ada Pesch, who played the solo part in Aminta’s famous aria expressively. In his recording with a period instrument orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a far more persuasive advocate of the hidden gem, finding far more variety and dept in it.
Aminta is a role generally taken by lyric sopranos, who can benefit from a serviceable lower register and creamy top notes. In Neville Marriner’s recording, there is Angela Maria Blasi, whose voice was substantial enough to sing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and in Thomas Hengelbrock’s DVD, we find Anette Dasch, Bayreuth’s current Elsa in Lohengrin. Martina Jankova is the Opernhaus Zürich’s resident -ina and couldn’t help finding the tessitura uncomfortable. Although she sang stylishly and often beautifully, her usually bell-toned soprano seemed opaque in its higher reaches and sometimes sharp. Her voice is very agile, but she would sound even more convincing in Aer tranquillo if the conductor had given her a little bit more leeway. Malin Hartelius’s last Mozartian role in Zürich was Fiordiligi and the next is going to be Konstanze. Elisa’s breathtakingly high tessitura accordingly suggests a bright-toned soprano “happier” in its higher reaches: an Arleen Augér role. Hartelius’s voice sits a bit lower than this. At any rate, if she is going to sing Martern aller Arten in the near future, I have to believe she was really not in very good voice this evening. Her high notes were recessed and often unfocused. Only solid technique saved her in her act II aria. Her coloratura was generally precise and fluent, but she too strayed from what Mozart wrote in a couple of tricky notes. In any case, both ladies were far better cast than Sandra Trattnigg, who fought pitch, fioriture and low notes as Tamiri. It could have been nerves, but I suspect this is not her repertoire.
The men proved to be far more commendable – Benjamin Bernheim has a firm, substantial and pleasant tenor. His voice is not very flexible and sometimes his phrasing is too cupo. But he has great potential, which he has yet to fulfill. Rolando Villazón had his hard edges in a role in which everybody else is basically all hard edges. In other words, although the approach was sometimes too broad for Mozart, I have never heard it so beautifully sung as this evening: the tone is warm, natural and dulcet, his control of divisions is impressive and he even found variety, feeling and sense of humor in the role. He could also build a very funny yet unexaggerated character – the ad libs appropriate and sometimes hilarious. I am glad he has decided to explore lighter roles, in which had proved to more than fulfill the technical and musical requirements.