Mozart's operas appeal to listeners on many levels

Mozart is instantly accessible to almost any listener, as the success of the movie ``Amadeus'' proved. And the key to understanding Mozart is in his operas, which, no doubt, is why those operas figured prominently in that film's sound track. He is the quintessential opera composer, because his melodies appeal at once to one's sense of proportion and grace and manage to touch one's deepest emotions.

This point came home to me last week when I heard ``Il re pastore'' and ``Die Zauberfl"ote'' on successive evenings. The former work Mozart wrote in less than six weeks when he was 19; the latter was premi`ered nine weeks before his death at the age of 34, in 1791. Obviously, the Mozart of 1791 was a consummate professional, who knew all the angles in writing operas that would please his public (even if at times he chose to ignore his public). But it is astounding how much of the mature Mozart one hears in his earlier works.

I hasten to note that ``Il re pastore'' (``The Shepherd King'') is no neglected masterpiece. It was tossed off quickly to honor a royal visit to Salzburg. Its biggest drawback, particularly in terms of today's tastes, is the pages and pages of static sung dialogue (recitative) accompanied by harpsichord.

But in concert, as performed by the Mostly Mozart Festival forces, there are enough treasurable moments to justify the occasional revival. The aria ``L'amer`o, sar`o costante'' (''I will love her, I will be faithful'') is one of the best tunes he wrote in his earlier years. Effortlessly melodic, it captures the mood of pastoral fidelity. And it shows how set Mozart's way of accompaniment had already become.

That aria was probably soprano Hei-Kyung Hong's finest moment and the highlight of this concert performance, led by Gerard Schwarz. Nevertheless, it must be noted that Mozart does bring out all the gremlins in a singer's technique, and all but tenor Michael Myers came to grief rather too often throughout the evening. Miss Hong, possessor of a sumptuous, light-timbred voice, could often float out a lovely long line and manage florid passages with aplomb. Alas, she was equally able to project unsupported, effortful tones and to slip chronically out of tune.

Gail Dobish, a coloratura beginning to be noticed, seemed unable to do more than roughly approximate her florid passages, and the voice proved not at all properly equalized throughout its range. I mention these negative points for both singers because they are still young and are poised on the edge of international careers. Though the unusually gifted Hong is further ahead than Miss Dobish, on this occasion neither demonstrated the sort of readiness to cope with the pressures that the next career step will inevitably place on them.

Tenor Jerry Hadley, the Alessandro, was not in his most even-toned form. Kaaren Erickson communicated so much depth of feeling that I must assume her lack of vocal purity was due to her being pregnant. Fortunately, Mr. Myers, whose tenor is not intrinsically pretty, really seemed to know his part and gauged every phrase with Mozartean distinction.

Of course, ``Die Zauberfl"ote'' (``The Magic Flute'') needs little introduction. This immensely popular work shows Mozart at the peak of his theatrical powers. And he knew how to take his miraculous melodies and place them in a context that would amaze and ingratiate. Happily, the New York City Opera, which unveiled its superb new production last Friday, has never performed the ``Flute'' as a Germanic philosophy lesson; once again it is beautiful and thoroughly enchanting.

Director Lotfi Mansouri chose to re-create the flavor of 18th-century stagecraft - moving drops and other simple devices creating all the magical effects needed. The Thierry Bosquet sets and costumes were particularly stunning. (What a find he is for this company!) And Mr. Mansouri was very alert to make all these characters real rather than cardboard.

Faith Esham, in particular, brought the too-often-shallow Pamina vividly to light. This exquisitely beautiful soprano moves with poise and grace. She is also a remarkably attentive, alert actress, and this Pamina responded to everything with fire, animation, and believable emotions. Even her singing was, on this occasion, often lovely of timbre, and she was acutely sensitive to phrasing and nuance.

In the same league was Stephen Dickson's Papageno. He is a disarmingly charming performer, and in this histrionically demanding role, he managed to sustain one's interest, keep his audience laughing, and sing the role with conviction, even tone, and rich timbre.

Jon Garrison may not be the most mellifluous of tenors, but he projected all the heroism and depth one longs to find in the role of Tamino. Unfortunately, neither Rachel Rosales (Queen of the Night) nor debuting Rodney Godshall (Sarastro) were up to their colleagues in vocal matters.

In the pit, Sergiu Comissiona conducted the most elegant and assured Mozart I have heard in this house since Julius Rudel left. And how well the City Opera Orchestra played for him!

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