MUSIC / Visible swings: Julian Rushton on Opera North's Il re pastore at the Grand Theatre, Leeds

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Rather than return to a 19th-century war-horse, Opera North, which launched in November 1978 with Samson and Delilah, is dividing its 15th anniversary season between modern and classic rarities: the Leeds premiere of Michael Berkeley's Baa Baa Black Sheep (given at Cheltenham during the summer and now to be televised), and a new production of Mozart's Il re pastore. Swiftly compiled by a 19- year-old to entertain travelling royalty, this is a piece one rarely expects to see, let alone find viable. But, thanks here to David McVicar's imaginative direction, Frank Higgins' attractive neo- classical setting, an intelligently austere and singable translation by Amanda Holden, and committed musical performances under Paul Daniel, the characters' dilemmas acquire unexpected pathos.

The slender imbroglio is presided over by Alexander the Great, whom none dares contradict. He was probably expected by the original librettist, Metastasio, to appear blandly benevolent; his blunders are well-meaning, even if they nearly break four hearts. McVicar, who designed the costumes, makes him a swaggering braggart in greatcoat and epaulettes, and Martyn Hill puts him over with authority and style in all three arias.

Philip Salmon as the dutiful Agenore looks clerical, which makes his near-breakdown from love the more compelling.

While adding contrast to an evening of vocal splendour, Patricia Bardon as the exiled princess Tamiri sounded too vibrant, and the character's irony and vulnerability suffered from McVicar's adoption of an opera buffa acting style: her sack of rescued Faberge was a pleasant touch, but having Agenore kiss her foot was gratuitous. Mary Hegarty, unnecessarily scruffy as Elisa, appeared slightly batty, but like the others threw herself into the part and infused every utterance with vitality; her duet with Joan Rodgers's Amyntas made a glorious close to the first act. The conception of Amyntas, a gawky shepherd who matures and is willing to renounce a throne for Elisa, might have sat uneasily on the original castrato performer, but it suits Rodgers, whose admirable singing is matched by her visible swings between happiness, perplexity and decision. Her beautifully modulated performance of the exquisite rondo with solo violin was most moving.

Purists may find this production over-complicated, even a mite frivolous: puppets distract from the pretty overture, the silly sheep upstage Joan Rodgers in her first aria, and one could do without Alexander's packing- cases and final heavenward ascent on a mock-period machine.

But to recreate the original style, even if it were feasible (Mozart's opera was not fully staged in 1775), would not help the cause of Il re pastore with a modern audience. This performance is open to objection in places, but it is generally charming, and brings the work unexpectedly to life. What more could one ask?

'Il re pastore' continues in repertory at the Grand Theatre, 46 New Briggate, Leeds (Booking: 0532 459351 / 440971)

(Photograph omitted)

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