Ian Page and the Classical Opera Company have made a specialty of performing early Mozart operas and at the weekend, they gave two performances of his two-act serenata, Il re pastore as part of the series “Mozart Unwrapped” at Kings Place. The Classical Opera Company is known for their Associate Artist scheme where they nurture and give experience to talented young singers and several of them have already made it to the international stage. When the current Associate Artist Sarah-Jane Brandon, cast to sing the main role of Aminta, became indisposed, it was a former Associate Artist Martene Grimson, who came to the rescue. In fact, it was hard to imagine a better-sung Aminta.

© Classical Opera Company
© Classical Opera Company

Il re pastore was the only operatic work Mozart composed specifically for the Salzburg court. It was composed by the nineteen-year-old composer in 1775, and one can hear similarities to his violin concertos which were written around the same period. At the same time, some of the arias look forward to his mature operas such as the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, as well as La Clemenza di Tito and it is clear that Mozart has already formed his individual voice. The story, set during Alexander the Great’s campaign, is about the shepherd Aminta, betrothed to the noble Elisa, who suddenly finds that he is the legitimate heir to the throne. The libretto is by the great eighteenth-century Italian poet Metastasio and we were able to appreciate the poetic beauty of the text as the surtitles were projected largely and clearly on a screen above the stage.

In the sonorous acoustics of Kings Place, the five singers (including the three current Associate Artists) were generally excellent with good grasp of Mozartian style, and they really brought out the conversational quality in the recitatives. Martene Grimson’s voice had a sheen and she was able to express the inner emotions eloquently, especially in the moving aria “L’amero, saro costante” (with sensitive violin solos by Matthew Truscott). The soprano Elizabeth Bailey brought lots of character to the role of Elisa – playing her at times with charm and at times with feistiness – and her duet with Aminta was exquisitely sung. The magnanimous Alexander the Great was sung by a warm-voiced tenor Thomas Hobbs: his bravura arias were dispatched with brilliant control, although he didn’t seem as confident in his recitatives. Alexander Sprague played the sidekick role of Agenore with good theatrical timing and he excelled in his stormy and emotional aria in the second act. As Tamiri, in love with Apgenore, Mary Bevan sang her two arias with agility and passion.

Ian Page supported the singers with assurance and his tempos were well-judged, always maintaining the flow of the music. The period-instrument orchestra of the Classical Opera Company, led by the excellent Matthew Truscott, kept a tight and well-articulated ensemble, although at times there could have been more expressive nuances and colour. There were a couple of slips in the continuo section.

Finally, a few words about the presentation. As it was billed as a concert performance, I don’t have problems with the singers looking at the score placed on a music stand. However, on this occasion, the singers attempted some acting on stage especially in the dialogues – probably to get a stronger sense of drama – but with their score in their hands. Personally I think that if they want to act on stage, they should at least memorize the recitatives and I found this half measure approach unsatisfactory. That aside, it was a highly enjoyable evening, and the singing of the young talented singers brought out the best in Mozart’s youthful opera.