A year before the U.S. was born, a 19-year-old boy wrote an opera about a wise ruler who gives way to the will of the people. You could probably draw a moral from the fact that, 200-plus years later, though we’re still performing Mozart’s little pastoral fable, the concept it embodies has been reduced to a bitter joke. Wisdom and compassion from those who govern us? Try playing that innocently in modern dress. Which is why, sensibly, Mark Lamos’s witty, light-handed production of Il Re Pastore barely tries to plumb the drama’s serious depths, instead letting us come at the seriousness (which is both moral and musical) through tactics that literally amount to fun and games.
The scene is Sidon—the Middle East was trouble even then. Aminta, a shepherd, loves Elisa, a lady above his station. Except that he’s really above hers, being the son of Sidon’s unjustly deposed king. In a parallel plot, his noble friend Agenor loves Tamiri, daughter of the usurper, himself now dead, thanks to the intervention of Alexander the Great, who would be an arrogant imperialist Dubya if he weren’t, in this version, the very model of an Enlightenment philosopher-king. Alexander wants to put Aminta back on the throne, but he also wants to assuage Tamiri’s bitterness by having Aminta marry her, a just settlement that would leave everyone miserable. Passionate appeals by Elisa and Tamiri make him reconsider, and majority rule wins—literally, since Alexander leaves the two couples to reign jointly.
Pietro Metastasio’s libretto was already two decades old when our wonder boy set it. Most of the earlier versions are forgotten today; Mozart’s is still cherished because it has a freshness, fluidity, and surprise to it that come partly from a teenager’s exuberant energy—the score never seems to stop bubbling over with ideas—and partly from its premonitory flashes of the dramatic genius he would grow up to become. Even at 19, he was twisting the ornate but rigid forms of opera seria a dozen unexpected ways. He had no hesitation about interrupting an aria for theatrical effect, or throwing a second voice in unexpectedly to make it a glorious duet. The score’s most famous item, Aminta’s “L’ameró, saro costante,” is one of Mozart’s earliest demonstrations of his gift for conveying mixed feelings: Aminta is vowing love and fidelity to the woman he’s marrying only out of obligation; the long-limbed, plaintive melody, underscored with mournful woodwinds, tells you exactly how unhappy he is about it.
Lamos’s staging took advantage of a moment in the libretto’s history: Before it was premiered, the children of Empress Maria Theresia, who commissioned it, had given a palace reading of the text. On a bright, bare stage, Lamos marshals children in gilt-paper crowns to shift designer John Conklin’s playful scenic fragments: toy horses, watercolor-wash trees, equestrian statues striped yellow and black like highway barriers. The singers move among them in ornate (except for Aminta’s) period outfits, while relevant apothegms by Enlightenment thinkers unscroll from the flies (“A society needs both shepherds and butchers”—Voltaire). The mix of Baroque gravitas and modern foolery keeps the work lively without masking its depth. One minor cavil: The beauty of conductor Nicholas McGegan’s orchestral sound makes the clatter of little feet and scenic wheels during ritornelli a real annoyance. But the cast’s five superb young singing actors, headed by lush-voiced Lisa Saffer (Aminta) and vivacious Heidi Grant Murphy (Elisa) handle both the florid phrases and Lamos’s emphatically physicalized staging with ease. Funny that our vernacular musical theater can’t find attractive, emotionally involved performers who sing this well unplugged.