Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Mozart's Il Re Pastore at Merola

San Francisco's Merola summer intensive training program for beginning opera singers presented an early Mozart opera, Il Re Pastore, last week at the SF Conservatory of Music. The young singers (from left to right) Charles Sy, Cheyanne Coss, Patricia Westley, Zhengyi Bai, and Simone McIntosh all had strong, beautiful voices and were perfectly capable in their roles. The conducting by Stephen Stubbs of a pickup orchestra, seated directly in front of the front rows, was lively and charming. The antic production by director Tara Faircloth, with colorful scenery by Laura Fine Hawkes and 1950s costumes by Callie Floor, was successful on its own merits. The mostly elderly audience was happily entertained by the constant silliness of the staging, and the reviews have been laudatory. So why did the Saturday afternoon performance turn me into a dissatisfied Grinch? (All production photos are by Kristen Loken.)

There were two main objections, one musical and one dramatic. Though the voices were lovely, all five principal singers oversang, which forced them into occasional shriekiness. Mozart's music, even at its most difficult, should sound clear and effortless to be truly effective, and in a small, 400-seat hall, there was no reason for everyone to be singing so loudly. I don't blame the singers since they are all trying to make a huge impression and move up the career ladder, but do question the conductor and Merola musical staff for their lack of coaching in that regard. (Pictured above with cutesy sheep props is Patricia Westley as Elisa, a maiden in love with the shepherd Aminta, performed by Cheyanne Coss below).

The libretto was by Pietro Metastasio, the most popular lyrical poet of 18th century opera, whose specialty was opera seria where the plots usually involved absolute monarchs learning to behave ethically while surrounded by lovers who are thwarted and often reunited in happy endings. Metastasio was a fascinating character whose life would make an extraordinary miniseries. Born in Rome in 1698 to a shopkeeper's family, he was a pretty, 10-year-old poor boy in Rome when he was adopted by an educated noble who heard him on the street performing poetry extemporaneously. For the next four decades, it was one male or female after another who fell in love with Metastasio and his poetry, and many left their fortunes to him after death. At the age of 32 he went to the cultural capital of Vienna and wrote many of the lyric plays which were used as the basis for over 800 operas, including Mozart's Il Re Pastore and La Clemenza de Tito and Rossini's Semiramide.

Metastasio's opera seria went permanently out of style with the gradual abolition of absolute monarchs so it's a challenge to stage sincerely in the 21st Century, but lampooning the story and layering it with comic schtick did not work for me, and having Zhengyi Bai as Alexander the Great channeling Mr. Chow from The Hangover movie while surrounded by supernumerary security guards transformed a noble character into a buffoon.

The real problem with making everyone cartoon caricatures is that you don't give a damn about any of them, even when they are singing Mozart's heart-rending arias that are distillations of love, jealousy, anger, and joy. (Pictured above are the wonderful mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh as deposed Princess Tamiri and Charles Sy as her beloved Agenore who everybody seems to beat up in this production.)

Part of the disappointment on Saturday was that some of the best Mozart productions of my life have been presented by Merola over the last decade in small theaters with talented young singers. Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, Marriage of Figaro, and La Finta Giardiniera were revelations, particularly after sitting through productions in the too-large-for-Mozart War Memorial Opera House. I hope Merola presents the other Metastasio/Mozart collaboration, La Clemenza de Tito, sooner rather than later, and that somebody figures out how to present this antiquated style seriously.

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