At Merola Opera Program, young performers breathe life into juvenile Mozart piece

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Kristen Loken/Courtesy

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In 1775, 19-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart received a commission to write an opera for the viewing pleasure of the archbishop of Salzburg. Six weeks later, the young musical genius had completed a new composition, his 10th opera to that date: “Il Re Pastore,” or “The Shepherd King.”

Though many artistic directors overlook “Il Re Pastore” for Mozart’s more complex and widely acclaimed compositions, Merola Opera Program’s selection of the piece makes sense in a way — the operatic stars of her show are, after all, not too far in age from 19 themselves. The result was an entertaining and enjoyable performance that found humor in an otherwise unremarkable plot.

Throughout the performance, viewers found themselves continuously impressed by the operatic prowess of the young performers onstage. With solos scripted for each of the five characters in the opera, each opera singer onstage got the chance to stun viewers with the power of their voice alone. The singers onstage had paid their dues to get there — this season, Merola hand-picked no more than 29 applicants from a pool of hundreds for the opportunity to participate in its highly prestigious operatic training program. Considering the expectations stacked upon the shoulders of the performers, it makes sense that the opera program demands excellence — in “Il Re Pastore,” performers had to not only perfect musical numbers, but also understand their Italian lines, perfect their portrayals of their characters and memorize choreography. Only the most skilled of performers are cut out for the task.

Despite the requirements of her central role, Cheyanne Coss lost no time in capturing the adoration of the audience as shepherd and future ruler Aminta. In a clean and precise soprano timbre, Coss performed the opening number, “Intendo, amico rio,” in which Aminta expresses his adoration for his shepherdess lover, Elisa (Patricia Westley). Though seemingly a nontraditional casting call on the part of Faircloth, the appointment of Coss to this male role was less unconventional than one may expect. The role was originally penned for a “soprano castrato,” or a male castrated in order to achieve the coveted soprano pitch generally afforded to women. After such drastic measures fell out of fashion, to say the least, many directors started turning to female performers to fill the shoes of Aminta.

Despite the demanding nature of the role, Coss excelled as Aminta. In “L’amerò, sarò constante,” another aria sung by the shepherd, Coss’ seemingly effortless execution earned the performer a cadence of bravos from the audience. Conductor Stephen Stubbs could be seen smiling adoringly at the young performer while directing the orchestra.

Coss also shined in scenes alongside other gifted performers — namely Westley. The pair boasted impressive chemistry onstage, with each wholeheartedly devoting herself to her character. Playing Elisa as a drama queen, Westley garnered quite a few laughs from viewers while at the same time holding her own in the challenging vocals. While warbling “Barbaro! oh Dio mi vedi!” during Elisa’s attempts to visit with the recently crowned Aminta, the shepherdess bound aristocrat Agenore (Charles Sy) with his own tie, much to the amusement of the audience.

Kristen Loken/Courtesy

Kristen Loken/Courtesy

This playfulness continued throughout the performance. Mozart’s simplistic, archetypal plot benefited from Faircloth’s added comedic elements, making the opera more enjoyable than it would have been if Merola had opted to play it straight. If “Il Re Pastore” pales in comparison to Mozart’s later opere serie, or serious works, Merola Opera demonstrates that this pastoral tale holds its own when approached as an opera buffa, or comic opera.

In the role of King Alessandro, Zhengyi Bai proved key to bringing home Faircloth’s comedic touches. Though the character is written as a heroic ruler, Bai played Alessandro as a self-obsessed, narcissistic conqueror. “Bella,” he sings in one piece, during which Faircloth has him gazing into a mirror — in English, “handsome.”

All considered, the Merola Opera’s rendition of “Il Re Pastore” did not wring a life-changing, emotionally charged experience out of this opera. To do so may prove impossible. Instead, the program approached the subject matter from a completely different angle, making it significantly more enjoyable than it otherwise may have proven. “Bravo,” and “Brava,” indeed.

Ryan Tuozzolo covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @_rtuo.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Merola Opera Program chooses no more than two dozen applicants for its program. In fact, 29 applicants were chosen this season.