Il re pastore, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

One step ahead of the flock
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To interpret Il re pastore as a rite-of-passage opera is perhaps fanciful. If Mozart perceived any parallel between his transition from wunderkind to mature composer and that of a shepherd who becomes a king, it is unlikely he would have said so. Yet the depth of feeling in "L'amerò, sarò costante" indicates something more substantial than sympathy for Aminta's dilemma, and something more personal than the espousal of Augustan ideals. Though Elisa (Ana James), Alessandro (Peter Bronder), Tamiri (Anna Leese), and Agenore (Robert Murray) are opera seria archetypes, Aminta (Katie Van Kooten) is flesh and blood: an Enlightenment figure in a pre-Enlightenment work.

Excepting Bronder's laboured coloratura, Il re pastore is exquisitely sung. It is also, courtesy of conductor Edward Gardner and the English Baroque Soloists, exquisitely played. Whatever its dramatic shortcomings, the opera is beautifully scored, with delicious details for the flutes, searing suspensions from the oboes, and a lyrical violin obbligato (Peter Hanson) in "L'amerò".

Gardner's phrasing is dynamic, and the closing quintet, which often sounds like an afterthought, is very cleverly phrased. For singers whose hopes must be set on later repertoire, Van Kooten, James and Murray show an impressive understanding of Classical style, and so touching is Van Kooten's Aminta that one almost wishes Octavian were a soprano role.

Visually, the production is a post-modern fright: resembling an over- designed Brompton restaurant where wealthy tourists wave their forks over £25 portions of chill-cabinet antipasti. John Lloyd Davies, the director-designer who suspended books over the auditorium in The Rape of Lucretia, has turned to arrows for this show. He must have got a job lot, for they're everywhere: hanging over the stage, the auditorium, and the bar, working overtime as Cupid's darts and as martial weaponry. Susanne Hubrich's costumes are equally strange. Elisa sports cargo-pants under her shepherdess panniers, Alessandro has desert fatigues under a Hapsburgian greatcoat, Agenore wears a periwig with an Austin Powers-style velvet suit. There is also a water- feature, the inclusion of which now appears to have become strangely obligatory in Linbury productions.

The studio has a small stage, so it seems perverse to make it even smaller and litter what little space remains with toy sheep, a giant, overturned chalice that doubles as Aminta's country retreat, a babbling brook, a police incident board, and eight bodyguards in golden masks.

Not as perverse, however, as interpolating the slide show of Poussin landscapes that takes place on a gilt-framed canvas at the rear of the stage with gnomic epigrams from The Little Book of Enlightenment Calm. "Destiny grants our wishes to grant us something beyond our wishes," says one. "Character is formed in the stormy billows of the world," says another.

Often these comments are quite at odds with what is actually being sung, but turning to the programme I see that some of the most Yoda-esque lines come from some of history's greatest minds: Cervantes, Plato, Pope, Diderot, Derrida, Douglas Adams. (Douglas Adams?) Oh well. We all have our off days, as Rousseau memorably said.

It is odd, weird, bizarre that such an elegant, rational work should receive such an inelegant, irrational staging. The singing, acting and playing, however, are for the most part sublime.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

To 22 April, 020 7304 4000

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