With eight young singers, a pianist, and a budget probably equal to the cost of one tray of prosciutto and melon in the Seattle Opera press hospitality suite, Off-Center Opera is presenting Mozart's 1775 Il re pastore (ends Saturday, Aug. 27 at Town Hall; 800-838-3006). Though Off-Center's offering is at the opposite financial extreme from SO's current Ring, the two productions share a reverence for the intentions of their composers and for the dramatic portrayal of honest emotion.
In this respect, Il re pastore presents the greater challenge. Though later on Mozart was able to bypass the conventions of baroque opera seria, early in his career (he was 19 at the time he wrote this) he took whatever opportunities came along— in this case, a book by Pietro Metastasio, the century's most popular librettist. The typical love polygon plot begins with two happy couples: Aminta, the rightful king of Sidon hiding out as a shepherd, and Elisa, his true love; Agenore, a Sidonian nobleman, and his devoted, Princess Tamiri. Alexander the Great comes along, conquers Sidon, deposes Tamiri's father (he's a tyrannical usurper, so it's OK), and bollixes everything by offering a reluctant Aminta both the throne and Tamiri.
Like all opera seria libretti, this tale is rendered in a strictly alternating chain of recitatives (chanted dialogue with harpsichord punctuation) which advance the plot, and da capo arias (an A section, a contrasting B, and A's return), in which the characters soliloquize on their emotional state. In rejecting this constricting plan, post-Mozart opera composers went perhaps too far, becoming increasingly disinclined, in the name of musical unity, to observe any distinction between these two basic types of text: metered, rhymed poetry, set melodically; and unmetered prose set to naturalistic speech rhythms. Composers may have gained in formal flexibility, but I think gave up an important dramatic resource.
Sometimes it works: In Wagner's Ring, for example (he wrote his own libretto), poetry and prose, narrative and reflection all flow together gorgeously. But the final degradation came in the operas of Menotti and his followers (Barber's Vanessa, Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire), in which everything from "Pass the salt" to declarations of undying passion is set to the same sort of directionless, quasi-lyrical note-stringing. It's taken the minimalists to once again realize that an opera's dramatic needs might require now one kind of text, then another. The regular, chugging rhythms that are the cornerstone of Philip Glass' and John Adams' styles set up a sort of temporal grid that's proven to be perfectly versatile for both parlando (speechlike) vocal writing and for supporting melodic flights.
If the characters and situations in opera seria are artificial—kings no longer pretend to be shepherds, though presidents occasionally masquerade as ranchers—the emotions are universal. The likable cast of Il re pastore (in the performance I heard, Maria Elena Armijo, Ross Hauck, Amy Paden, Emily Riesser, and James M. Walters) handles Mozart's florid garlands of scales with varying degrees of precision and panache, and adapts well to the emotional demands of each aria (contentment, heartache, jealousy, etc.). Sarah Koo contributes a pretty violin obbligato in the soprano showpiece "L'amerò sarò costante," and, holding it all together, pianist Susan McDaniel plays with the sort of confidence and richness that makes you not miss the orchestra.
Though there are probably more possibilities for lively and imaginative staging than are explored here, one witty touch is the scenic backdrop—not a painted landscape, but a painting of a landscape, complete with ornate gold frame. And Melanie White's direction makes expressiveness a priority. This opera's formal stiffness might not hold your attention so well sitting in row DD in McCaw Hall, but when the singers are four yards away on Town Hall's pocket-size basement stage, you are touched just as Mozart and Metastasio intended.