Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Table Manners

June 17, 2009

l - r: Alek Shrader, Maureen McKay, Daniela Mack, and Paul Appleby
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

It’s muggy and stormy here in St. Louis this week. I forget that I live in a “dry heat” area now, and a trip back to my old stomping grounds has brought back all kinds of associations. One of the most positive of those is a return visit to the summer season of Opera Theater Saint Louis which is in the middle of a very strong series of shows through the end of this month. Entering its fourth decade, this regional opera company has quickly risen to the forefront, along with Santa Fe Opera, in providing first-rate productions featuring the best North American talents in both vocal and instrumental music, stagecraft, and composition. It’s a mantle that New York City Opera lost about two decades ago, and luckily for the rest of the country, the highest quality home grown opera is readily available in places outside of New York City.

Take as exhibit A, a new production of Mozart’s Il re pastore which I saw on Tuesday. Who needs international superstars when you have a largely American cast as good as this one? Heidi Stober plays Aminta with real wit and grace. I loved her as La Follie in the revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Platée a few years back in Santa Fe, and she was just as exciting to watch here. Opposite her was Alek Shrader, a young tenor who is certainly on the rise after being featured this year in the heavily promoted documentary about the Metropolitan Opera’s 2007 National Council Auditions. His future seems certain on an opera stage given that he has a clear and well-controlled voice that is both strong and bright. And the fact that he’s totally hot doesn’t hurt either I suppose. The rest of the cast including Paul Appleby, Daniela Mack, and Maureen McKay all proved themselves as more than capable Mozart singers under the baton of Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

Heidi Stober as Aminta
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

It’s a testament to the cast that they were so watchable in a production that could be divisive among audiences. The production stems from the minds of Chas Rader-Shieber and David Zinn, two well-known and capable opera stagers who have long associations with numerous American houses including NYCO. It’s an update and a transposition in story that uses the old play-within-a-play device, not unlike Mary Zimmerman’s recent controversial La Sonnambula for the Metropolitan Opera. And while this is a much lower profile gambit here, the results can be somewhat similar. In fact this particular version of Il re pastore seems to almost directly refer to Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal, but without the Freudian overtones.

Alek Shrader as Alessandro
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

Il re pastore
is a standard Baroque opera seria plot with two sets of lovers being inadvertantly separated and later reunited by a benevolent king. Aminta, a shepherd, is recognized by Alexander the Great and his adviser as the true king of Sidon whose illegitimate ruler his forces have just dispatched. While Aminta's unsuspecting elevation to the throne might be good news, it creates havoc between him and his love, Elisa, who wants to keep things simple. The action in this production is updated to the late 19th century in an upscale British drawing room where a young couple have just been engaged and their friends have come to celebrate. While there, they prepare a performance of Il re pastore with the young woman singing Aminta, her maid singing Elisa, and the woman’s fiancée performing the Alexander the Great role. Early on, it seems the the young woman singing Aminta is celebrating her engagement, but begins irritating her future groom when she begins to take the Mozart role she is in the midst of performing too seriously, directing her attention toward her maid in a mock bridal ceremony. Confused yet? The conceit works at first, but as things move along, the sense of it all breaks down as the characters become more involved in the opera story line than whatever the implied meta-narrative is. On some level, the staging wants to emphasize the themes of stepping outside of one’s class role apparent in Mozart’s opera. The maid abandons her servile position in the Victorian household as she becomes involved in the rehearsal only to be thrust back into it by the end of the show. But admittedly, despite the fact that the sets and costumes look great and I was very entertained throughout, it could get a bit frustrating to try to think through it all. But with a musical performance and singing this good it’s easy to overlook a lovely if misguided staging. Il re pastore runs through June 26.

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