14 January 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / January 2016: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — IL RE PASTORE (J. M. Ainsley, S. Fox, A. Tynan, A. Devin, B. Hulett; Signum Classics SIGCD433)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - IL RE PASTORE (Signum Classics SIGCD433)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Il re pastore, K. 208John Mark Ainsley (Alessandro), Sarah Fox (Aminta), Ailish Tynan (Elisa), Anna Devin (Tamiri), Benjamin Hulett (Agenore); The Orchestra of Classical Opera; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded at St John’s, Smith Square, London, UK, 17 – 25 July 2014; Signum Classics SIGCD433; 2 CDs, 117:12; Available from Signum Records, ClassicsOnline HD (Download / Streaming), Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In terms of precocity and mastery of virtually every musical genre in vogue during his brief life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a truly remarkable composer, perhaps rivaled only by Felix Mendelssohn. Mozart’s extraordinary genius and versatility have prompted later generations of admirers to assume and assert that every work of which his authorship is authenticated, from juvenilia to the undoubted gems of his maturity, is at least on some level a masterpiece. Well-meaning as such advocacy of the master’s work invariably is, in reality it does Mozart and his music few favors. The Romantic minds of the Nineteenth Century determined that, in order to deserve their adulation, Mozart must be a tragic hero, so his music was performed, promoted, and published with embellished subtexts of intrigue and strife, fabricating a larger-than-life persona that in many ways had little in common with the historical Mozart. The Wunderkind of Salzburg endured many hardships, to be sure, but the Mozart who emerges from the composer’s extensive preserved correspondence is not a brooding, melancholic, echt-Romantic figure. Rather, he is an engaging, sometimes delightfully ribald fellow who, for all his social frivolity, is both utterly serious about his craft and tremendously insightful in assessing the work of his contemporaries. As the significance of composers like Josef Mysliveček has gradually been reestablished in the past half-century, it has become increasingly apparent that Mozart was not the sole musical innovator in the second half of the Eighteenth Century, single-handedly responsible for the transition from Viennese Classicism to early Romanticism. From the earliest of his works, though, there is a singularity in Mozart’s music that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Splendidly-written as the operas of both Haydns, Mysliveček, Dittersdorf, Holzbauer, and Salieri often are, they only fitfully display the emotional directness—the heart, as it were—that Mozart’s operas consistently wield. It is a disservice to Mozart to claim that Il re pastore is a masterwork equal in importance to the later Singspiele and Da Ponte operas, but the serenata has a compelling charm of its own, the Arcadian delicacy of its setting contrasting with music that frequently pushes singers to the limits of their techniques. What makes Mozart one of the greatest composers of opera is the manner in which he lures audiences into genuinely caring about characters who go about their business in recitatives and roulades. What his Il re pastore needs in order to capitalize on that allure is a cast and conductor who are capable of mastering the score’s many difficulties without bloating the dimensions of the drama. What Signum Classics’ and Classical Opera’s recording of Il re pastore offers is, simply put, an account of the piece that comes as near to perfection as any performance might ever hope to do.

Mozart had reached the advanced age of nineteen when Il re pastore—his tenth endeavor in operatic form!—was first performed on 23 April 1775. Commissioned to celebrate a visit to the archiepiscopal see of Salzburg by Archduke Maximilian Francis, the youngest son of Empress Maria Theresa and an almost exact contemporary of Mozart, the serenata made use of an adaptation of a 1751 Metastasio libretto by Prince-Archbishop Colloredo’s resident chaplain and poet, Abbé Varesco, who would later supply the libretto for Mozart’s first fully mature opera, Idomeneo, re di Creta. Reducing Metastasio’s three acts to two for Salzburg, Varesco and Mozart condensed the drama into a taut nucleus from which attentive performers can extract surprising jolts of electricity. Il re pastore is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, English horns, bassoons, and trumpets, four horns, strings, and harpsichord and cello continuo, complemented here by double bass—and brilliantly done by harpsichordist Steven Devine, cellist Joseph Crouch, and double bass player Cecilia Bruggemeyer. The musicians of the Orchestra of Classical Opera approach the virtuosic hurdles of Mozart’s music as though clearing them were as easy as walking. Playing by strings and winds alike is exemplary, the atmosphere of concentration and assured grasp of the idiom apparent from the first bars of the Molto allegro Overtura, delivered with quicksilver rhythms that would make the piece an introduction as suitable to ballet as to opera. The courantes, passacaglias, and sarabandes of Baroque opera were not altogether forgotten in 1775, after all, especially in Salzburg, where Heinrich Biber had virtually redefined the passacaglia a century earlier. The Classical Opera musicians execute their parts with passion and precision, wholly sidestepping the pedantry frequently encountered in performances of music of this vintage. The musical component of the Prince-Archbishop’s court was under the supervision of Michael Haydn at the time of the first performance of Il re pastore [it is conjectured that Haydn’s wife, the soprano Maria Magdalena Lipp, may have sung Tamiri in the première], but it is difficult to imagine Mozart having heard his music played as well as it is on this recording. The very favorable impression made by conductor Ian Page’s leadership of Classical Opera’s previous recordings of Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots and Mitridate, re di Ponto [reviewed here] is expanded exponentially by his conducting of Il re pastore. With traversals of the score led by committed Mozarteans Leopold Hager, Sir Neville Marriner, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the discography, Il re pastore has not been poorly served on disc, but Page’s direction reveals how greatly the music can benefit from a fresh approach that takes it cues solely from the music at hand, not from the perspectives of Mozart’s later operas. Conducting Il re pastore like a smaller-scaled Idomeneo or La clemenza di Tito is not wholly ineffectual, but the score yields far greater joys when treated not as a momentary stop on its composer’s journey but as its own entity. Page allows the specific atmosphere of Il re pastore to materialize on its own terms, guiding a performance that presents the opera without the editorial commentary of viewing the opera through lenses clouded by external influences. Page's focus remains solely on performing Il re pastore as Mozart’s score dictates.

Il re pastore is an opera in which the drama largely plays out in volleys of fiorature: passages of the lyrical delicacy familiar from the great operas of Mozart’s maturity, especially Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte, are few, but at the age of nineteen Mozart already possessed a gift for individualizing characters’ utterances despite similarities among the vocal lines composed for them. Both acts of Il re pastore subject the singers to progressions of arias as daunting as any written in the Eighteenth Century, and the greatest joy of this recording is the confidence with which the obstacles are overcome by this cast. In Act One, the amorous entanglements among Aminta, the modest shepherd who is actually the rightful king of Sidon, his fellow peasant Elisa, the unfortunate Tamiri, and the aristocratic but lovesick Agenore are tied into a Gordian knot of misunderstandings and shifting ambitions. Created in Salzburg by soprano castrato Tommaso Consoli, the rôle of Aminta is the sentimental spine of the opera, and the depiction of the character by soprano Sarah Fox is nothing short of authoritative. Fox sings the Andantino aria ‘Intendo, amico rio, quel basso mormorio’ with extraordinary poise, almost wholly avoiding shrillness at the top of the range. As a most welcome appendix to Act One [Il re pastore is not a long piece, after all], Mozart’s concert reworking of Aminta’s scene is provided, too, and Fox communicates with the histrionic force of a Hamlet or a Troilus in the Andante accompagnato ‘Ditelo voi pastori,’ unique to the concert version and strongly reminiscent of ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. In both contexts, Fox sings the Allegro aperto aria ‘Aer tranquilo e dì sereni’ with winning panache, untroubled by the repeated top B♭s. Her vocalism is especially radiant in the aria’s Grazioso section, ‘Che, se poi piacessi ai fati di cambiar gl’offici miei,’ which she phrases with impeccable musicality and concentration on the meaning of the words.

The Phoenician shepherdess Elisa is portrayed with vivacity and awe-inspiring technical polish by soprano Ailish Tynan. She enlivens the proceedings with her every appearance, an accomplishment exemplified by her traversal of the Allegro aria ‘Alla selva, al prato, al fonte.’ Her singing of the tricky divisions taking her to top B and C shows no signs of effort, but she emotes with immediacy even when negotiating fearsome fiorature. Ending Act One with the accompagnato ‘Che? m’affetti a lasciarti?’ and exquisitely-written Andante duet in A major, ‘Vanne a regnar, ben mio,’ Tynan’s Elisa and Fox’s Aminta sing as stirringly together as apart, their timbres combining alluringly in the duet’s opening and excitingly in its Allegretto section. The ethos of Mozart’s later music for Idamante and Ilia in Idomeneo and Annio and Servilia in La clemenza di Tito resounds in the ensemble writing for Aminta and Elisa, but Fox and Tynan ensure that the singular charms of Mozart’s music for Aminta and Elisa are apparent to the listener. The age of its composer notwithstanding, music of this quality is not merely a ‘trial run.’

The meddlesome but ultimately magnanimous conqueror Alessandro’s—yes, that Alessandro, he of ‘the Great’ notoriety—ferocious Allegro aria in D major, ‘Si spande al sole in faccia nube talor così,’ is delivered by tenor John Mark Ainsley with grandeur and unerring precision of pitch befitting a regal personage. Ainsley’s voice has sometimes sounded slightly fatigued in the past couple of years, but he is here wholly in his element—quite a feat in such throat-threatening music—and sings with the kind of fluency and fluidity that Fritz Wunderlich brought to Belmonte and Tamino. Unflinchingly taming the bravura beasts of his part, Ainsley is a phenomenally virile, visceral Alessandro. Heard on disc in many rôles, including as an uncommonly sensitive but rousingly heroic Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano, Ainsley is reliably a suave, intelligent artist, but these qualities have never been more in evidence than they are in his singing on the present discs.

Singing Agenore, the Sidonian nobleman who is incurably besotted with Elisa, tenor Benjamin Hulett is, like Ainsley, audibly on familiar, comfortable terrain in the character’s Grazioso aria ‘Per me rispondete, begl’astri d’amore’ in Act One. Indeed, Hulett has never sounded better on disc. In a Moscow concert performance of Händel’s Alcina in January 2015, not long after this Re pastore was recorded, the young tenor, perhaps affected by a seasonal malady, occasionally struggled with Oronte’s music, and his singing of Agenore’s music is not wholly devoid of effort. Every endeavor made by this fine singer is put to telling dramatic use, however, and the effort that he expends in this performance of Il re pastore is indicative of the extent to which he genuinely cares about singing Mozart’s vocal lines as the composer intended them to be sung. There is no question that hearing Hulett’s splendid performance of ‘Per me rispondete, begl’astri d’amore’—the best on disc by a considerable margin—would have prompted a hearty ‘Bravo!’ from the punctilious Mozart.

Tamiri, the daughter of the tyrannical ruler of Sidon deposed by Alessandro, is portrayed by soprano Anna Devin with disarming sincerity and a profound exploration of the competing emotions that make the character so fascinating. Devin sang Morgana opposite Hulett’s Oronte in the Moscow Alcina, and her Tamiri brims with the same energy and sparkling tone that defined her performance of Morgana’s celebrated ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ in Russia. Here, she sings Tamiri’s Allegro aperto aria ‘Di tante sue procelle già si scordò quest’alma’ exhilaratingly, soaring through the divisions with laudable poise. Devin, Fox, and Tynan take pains to ensure that their respective characters are discernible in recitatives and arias, and Devin’s Tamiri is a strong-willed, credibly conflicted woman who pursues her destiny most musically.

All five of the singers in this performance of Il re pastore are as expressive in their articulations of recitatives as in their readings of arias, and they are aided immeasurably in their avoidance of studio-bound ennui by Page’s conducting. Tynan bravely handles the task of jump-starting the drama of Act Two with her full-throated voicing of Elisa’s Andante aria ‘Barbaro! oh Dio! mi vedi divisa dal mio ben,’ making easy going of the punishing tessitura and technique-testing fiorature repeatedly cresting on top B♭. Her display of unflappable artistry is answered by Ainsley, who makes Alessandro’s arias in Act Two, the Allegro moderato ‘Se vincendo vi rendo felici’ and the Allegretto ‘Voi, che fausti ognor donate,’ penetrating studies of the mighty Macedonian’s complicated psychology. Still, even Ainsley’s meticulously-honed skills as a vocal actor pale in comparison with his stylish but imposing musical bravado.

Aminta’s E♭ major Andantino Rondeaux ‘L’amerò, sarò costante’ is the most familiar—a relative term in this context—number in Il re pastore, the only aria in the score to have enjoyed exposure beyond the handful of performances of the complete opera. It is a fine piece, worthy of its occasional inclusion in concerts and recordings of Mozart arias, but, in truth, it is not markedly superior to its siblings in Il re pastore, the music in the serenata being of admirably high quality from start to finish. As sung by Fox in this performance, though, ‘L’amerò’ is undoubtedly a zenith in both the score and this recording of it. Tamiri’s Andantino grazioso aria ‘Se tu di me fai dono’ is also a high point in the opera’s topography, and Devin phrases it with feeling and finesse. Hulett, too, sings as satisfyingly in Act Two as in Act One, his grand performance of Agenore’s Allegro aria ‘Sol può dir come si trova un amante in questo stato’ leaving the listener with an unforgettable souvenir of his artistry. The effect of the undeviating excellence achieved by the singers in this Il re pastore, bolstered by unusually well-informed conducting, cannot be overstated.

The closing Coro, ‘Viva, viva l’invitto duce,’ prefigures the extended finales of Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, but this recording succeeds again by presenting the serenata’s final scene not as a prototype for the concluding pages of later scores but as an intelligently-written resolution in its own right. In performances of music from the Eighteenth Century, authenticity is an elusive commodity. It is known, for instance, that Aminta in Il re pastore was first sung by a castrato, but how might he have sounded? Did the composer write to order for the capabilities of the musicians at his disposal, or did his music expand their technical boundaries? Though Mozart’s career is for the most part painstakingly researched, a work like Il re pastore nonetheless poses difficult questions. Rather than inventing hypotheses and then attempting to convincingly translate them into Mozart’s musical language, this performance seeks plausible answers to those questions in the music itself. Classical Opera’s endeavors aim not at the manufactured authenticity born of conjecture and dry theory but at insightful interpretation of the clues interwoven among the ledger lines, and this is a recording of Il re pastore that educates by making carefully-considered decisions rather than apologies and excuses. For what could a performance such as this need to apologize unless it is for eclipsing all previous recordings of this appealing score?