Sunday, June 22, 2014

Girl-on-girl action rocks Mozart

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Shepherdess (1752)

I'm late with an appreciation of Grand Harmonie's latest effort, a performance of Mozart's Il re pastore (The Shepherd King), which attracted an appreciative crowd to Harvard's Paine Hall last weekend. They were partly drawn, I imagine, by the chance to hear this rarely-performed opera seria, which dates from 1775 - just before the 19-year-old Mozart's stage breakthrough with Idomeneo. Well, that's what drew me, at any rate - but I found myself also treated to some spectacular singing from a posse of early-music stars, as well as an opportunity to touch base with a new (if not quite fully-formed) force on our period scene.

So it proved a lively and enjoyable evening, and left me much to ponder.  Top-of-mind was perhaps this opera's special place in Mozart's oeuvre - it's a charmer, to be sure, but hearing it cold, you might not guess it's "Mozart;" you'd merely think it was splendid, and by somebody who was obviously going places.

Okay - but what's missing, you might ask?

Jean-Baptise Greuze's purported portrait, 1764
Well, the divinely pure melodic line that marks Mozart's high achievement - and its peerless distillment of dramatic meaning - isn't quite there; but then we only miss it, really, because we know the later operas! Yet we also know Mozart slaved over Il re pastore - no doubt because it was created for an occasion of some pomp (a state visit to Salzburg by an archduke), and was based on an already proven libretto, Tasso's Aminta; so it clearly counted as both opportunity and challenge for the young composer.

Thus what we're listening to in The Shepherd King is a major talent still shepherding his own resources, and hoping to make a big, conventional splash. Although there are hints here and there of themes that would later spark his genius: the opera's twin couples prefigure those of Cosi fan tutte, while its central conflict echoes the imminent Idomeneo.  And certainly its most exquisite arias, such as "L'amerò, sarò cost ante," would not sound out of place in a later masterpiece - and the opera even closes with a remarkable ensemble. Indeed, at such moments we're all but itching to hear Mozart take the next, inevitable musical step.

Still, it must be admitted that much of Il re pastore, though transporting, is a bit generic. Aminta, a hunky, heroic shepherd, is in love with the beautiful, pure-hearted Elisa - although he's secretly the long-lost heir to the throne of Sidon (hardly a pastoral spot, as it's near Babylon, but never mind). The couple's royal secret is safe, however, until the well-intentioned King Alessandro overthrows the reigning tyrant of Sidon, and urges Aminta to take the throne - which would mean leaving the low-born Elisa behind with Lambchop. If the resulting conflict between love and duty sounds contrived to flatter a royal audience, well of course it was - yet Tasso's libretto ends up treating its theme with more depth than you'd expect, particularly in an ironic subplot that trips up an advisor of realpolitik in his own diplomatic web.  It's here that you most feel Mozart's voice about to break out in song - only it doesn't, not quite.

The same might be said about the performance by Grand Harmonie; this latest addition to Boston's period scene is obviously poised to go great places - but they're not quite there, not yet.  This was my first exposure to this new ensemble, and what struck me immediately was the freshness of a period sound that's driven by the horns and winds (I later discovered that these players were the founding core of the group). Indeed, listening to Grand Harmonie, I began to wonder whether our conventional early-music mode has become a bit lulled by the sad sighs of Lully and the baroque - in contrast, these guys sounded lusty and rhythmic and rustic; theirs was early music with a stomp, and I got the impression that they're also focused on less-trodden period paths from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Amanda Forsythe
Which was all refreshing, to be sure; but while the horns and winds were clearly in the driver's seat, they didn't seem to always have their hands on the wheel (or perhaps conductor Edward Elwyn Jones didn't). Jones kept things at a rambunctious clip - and that was good - but I felt as a result he sometimes ran a little roughshod over more subtly shaped passages (the orchestra only really slowed down for a sensitively-voiced solo from violinist Sarah Darling). And then to be honest, there were some intonation problems among the winds, as well as the to-be-expected fuzz from the natural horns (which are fiendishly difficult to play).

But all this was forgotten whenever the singers took the stage, for Grand Harmonie had assembled a galaxy of local vocal stars for this particular evening. Dominique Labelle, Amanda Forsythe, Teresa Wakim - these are the names you want on any early-music playbill, and all three delivered performances that ranked among their best. In the role of Elisa, Forsythe (at right) was in particularly fine form. Her melisma was pinpoint, her passagework beyond dazzling, her tone achingly pure - and you know in dramatic terms, she can play an Arcadian shepherdess in her sleep.

Dominique Labelle
Meanwhile, in the breeches role (literally) of Aminta, soprano Dominique Labelle (at left) shone just as brightly - indeed, if Forsythe had the sparkle of a tripping brook, then Labelle had the warm glow of afternoon sun; and while she didn't, perhaps, project the idealism of youth, her more-experienced persona gave Aminta's laments a touchingly world-weary tone. As you might imagine, this pair's love duets were breath-taking; indeed I'd say girl-on-girl action just doesn't get any better than this - at least vocally!

But wait, there's more: as Tamiri, a heart-broken pawn in the libretto's game of love and war, Teresa Wakim played silvery moon to Labelle's sun, with a ravishingly pure rendition of "Se tu mi fan dono." And her male co-stars weren't far behind: tenor Zachary Wilder has oft been seen in these parts, but rarely has he brandished the rich, ringing confidence he displayed as Alessandro. Meanwhile rising tenor Jonas Budris likewise brought an intensity to the Machiavellian advisor Agenore that we haven't seen from him before - although this young performer needed a subtler acting coach to draw out the mature resonances of the central twist in the libretto.  Like Mozart, and Grand Harmonie, Budris seemed poised on the cusp of great things.  So what can I say?  Stay tuned.

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