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Reflection: 'Pastore' sparkles in spite of an unfortunate transplantation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2009 -When you walk into the Loretto Hilton Theatre to see Opera Theatre’s production of “Il re pastore,” you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve shown up on the wrong evening. That’s  because the set looks as if it were created for an opera based upon “Howards End” rather than one set in the countryside near the Phoenician city of Sidon, a city located in what is now Lebanon.

The opera (actually a strung-together series of arias with a boffo finale) was composed by the boy genius Mozart when he was 19. His mature repertory would come later, five or six years hence, and that maturity would ring down the curtain on operas like this, the “opera seria, ” or as “Il re pastore” is called, the “serenata.” Just because this show doesn’t rate varsity status in the magnificent Mozartean hierarchy doesn’t mean it’s less than worthwhile, for it is worthwhile, indeed. The problem is that set.

The intent is to get around opera seria or serenata problems by picking up “Il re pastore” and placing it in a 19th century British drawing room and dining room. There it is taken over by the occupants and their guests, and becomes part of the entertainment at a weekend house party. The effect, nevertheless, is rather like getting one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters’ big feet into the too-small glass slipper. It can be done, and no permanent harm is inflicted, but it comes off as forced, and, in fact, just doesn’t work.

The intention – to make the opera seria or serenata form more interesting and dramatic – is fulfilled to some degree, in that the singers don’t simply plant themselves center stage and gesture and sing, as in an oratorio. But that’s enough poking at this production. The worthy attempt to transplant “Il re pastore” (The Shepherd King) from the Mediterranean to Hertfordshire notwithstanding, the show sparkles.

The décor is bright and inviting and would probably get at least a passing “U” from whichever Mitford sister it was who separated upper-class sheep from “non-U” goats. The lighting washed the set with gold. Design, when it is sturdy and good, forms foundations to  support artistic endeavor and carry it forward, and the sets, costumes and illumination conspire formidably to advance Opera Theatre’s production. But the genuine glory of this show is the music that rises from the pit and flows forth from the stage.

In this production, the company again fulfills ambitions and standards established more than three decades ago in this opera house -- to bring forth ensemble operas performed by extraordinary young American singers, in English, in a festival atmosphere.

It also met its obligations to lofty intellectual and moral standards that have been hallmarks through the years.  While Mozart spreads a layer of froth on many of his operas, just beneath it, and expressed in the complexity and rigorous formality of the music, are expressions of Enlightment thought, and presentations of probing questions about the maintenance of the status quo. Making such qualities evident is a function and a responsibility of art, and is a fundamental reason for standing up, as Opera Theatre has,  to the often battering challenges of putting operas up on stage.

“Il re pasture,” so seemingly frivolous and silly on the froth level, is more than a story of the boys being hooked up with the right girls, more than a parlor game, more than an evening of beautiful music. Like the greater, more transcendent  operas to come from W. A. Mozart – “Ideomeneo,” “Cosi fan tutte,” “Don Giovanni” -- questions are posed here about the organization of our world, about the wisdom of nobles and kings and about what it is that happens to those who are victorious on the one hand, and on the other, to those who are cast aside.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.