Although I have kept faith with the titling on these discs, the
composer of Fedra should be more properly referred to as
Giovanni Simone Mayr. This is an important distinction.
His birthplace was the small Bavarian village of Mendorf, and
his early education was at the Jesuit College in Ingolstadt. However, from early adulthood his desire was to study
in Italy ... where he eventually settled, adopting the latinisation
of his name. Thus Mayr’s operatic career, which ran for approximately
thirty years, from 1794 to 1824, took place almost exclusively
within the Italian borders.
visited Bergamo soon after leaving Mendorf to join classes given by
the renowned Carlo Lenzi. This proved to be a mistake. Lenzi
was unable or unwilling to teach Mayr the disciplines of counterpoint
he sought. Disappointed the young man moved to Venice. Lucky to find a new patron, one Count Pesenti, he became
a pupil of Ferdinando Bertoni, maestro di capella of San Marco.
the aged Bertoni did not prove to be an ideal teacher, Mayr
stuck at his task and used the extensive libraries in the
city to further his knowledge. He also attended many oratorio
and operatic performances. Considering himself thereafter
to be “Venice trained” it was from this time onward he adopted the
naming Giovanni Simone.
then sent the young composer to Bergamo to dedicate himself to religious composition. Shortly
afterward he died. This forced Mayr to return to Venice where he eked out a living
teaching and playing viola at the Teatro La Fenice. With this
background it was inevitable that, with the advocacy of Piccinni
among others, he began to compose theatrical works himself.
He never looked back. Although in his later career he returned
to sacred music, principally oratorios (or aczione tetrale),
for three decades he was a considerable figure on the Italian
should be noted however that his operatic activities ran in
parallel with continued teaching commitments. His “lezioni
caritatevoli” (charitable lessons) ran for many years in Bergamo, and attracted a high calibre of pupil. Several went
on to become prominent singers, whilst one was the young composer
Gaetano Donizetti – who remained a great friend and confidant
for decades afterwards.
away from teaching, if “Medea in Corinto” is regarded as Mayr’s
compositional masterpiece, “Fedra” is nevertheless a considerable
work in its own right. First performed at La Scala Milan on
26 December 1820,
it came towards the end of his active operatic period.
plot is certainly not without incident. It can be summarised
essentially as: King is away at the wars and feared dead.
Queen harbours illicit desire for the young Prince, which
is emphatically not reciprocated. He loves a young Princess
from another noble family. News arrives: the King lives and
is about to return. On arrival he senses disquiet. A scheming
maid suggests to the King that his son has made overtures
to the Queen. King confronts Prince who instead confesses
love for young Princess, whom King appears to hate. King sentences
him to death and he rushes away. News comes through that he
is battling a sea monster and distraught the King goes to
assist. Queen realising her completely hopeless position takes
slow acting poison. In her wanderings she stumbles across
the Prince’s corpse and she is shortly joined by the King.
Each blames the each other for his death. The King finally
humiliates his wife by revealing an earlier affair with the
very Princess his son had so desired. Curtain.
his setting Mayr manages to combine a comfort for Germanic
forms and balance with an Italianate feel for melody. His
music may not always be overtly exciting or brimful of daring
or experiment, but it does have an ability to leave the listener
dramatically and musically satisfied.
this is far from a unanimous view. Over the years critics
have not always been so kind. Stendhal for instance, no great
admirer of Mayr it is true, once pithily summed up the difference
between the two masters of the period as, “(Mayr is) ...
the very genius of correctness; but Rossini is the very spirit
of genius.” Many years later Winton Dean went quite a
way further, “Mayr’s serious operas leave the impression
of a cenotaph waiting for an occupant; of an eclectic artist
who never overthrew and seldom disturbed a convention, but
left a building swept and garnished for his successors”.
acknowledging a grain of truth in these assessments, there
is plenty of tension and excitement in the score. It is applied
judiciously and subtly, not laid on with a trowel. Moreover
there are plenty of incidental delights; listen for instance
to “Fra due rivali afetti” (CD 2 track 6), a duet between
Fedra and Teseo. Surely this is a noble enough melody to grace
any early 19th century operatic tragedy?
care for and interest in orchestral sonorities is evident
throughout. ... and a joy in itself; particularly the use
of sad and plaintive woodwind - oboe/horn and bassoon, against
a dark sub-structure of violas/cellos and basses.
for experiment: one tiny moment will suffice. At approximately
into the sinfonia, with the allegro section underway, listen
how Mayr introduces a little figure which is then tossed around
the orchestra – initially from the violins, to ... of all
sections ... the double basses ... and thence onward to the
horns. He repeats the pattern again, at around the 6:30 mark, albeit that this time the Braunschweig horns seem
to be better prepared for it!
such delights one wonders on what basis writers like Winton
Dean made their remarks? Surely some credence must be given
to how well the works are actually performed? Many pieces
have been all but written off on the basis of a brief view
of the score, ill conceived contemporary reviews or a poorly
is not only to the credit of the Staatstheater Braunschweig
that they have “unearthed” Fedra, but that they have
clearly done it such justice. Capucine Chiaudani in the title
role occasionally sounds a little metallic in extremis
but this may be a case of a voice not interacting well
with the microphone – not an unknown phenomenon. Otherwise
she sounds fully committed to the project ... and I for one
would always prefer this to a note-perfect rendition.
supporting cast is fine. In the trousers role of Ippolito,
Rebecca Nelsen is strong and sonorous and yet flexible enough
vocally to meet the demands of his/her opening aria “Compagno,
story of repressed emotions and secret loves, culminating
in the deaths of Atide, Ippolito and finally Fedra herself
in a powerful final scene are well realised by the cast. They
receive excellent support from the orchestra and chorus, who
do sterling work, and whose sound is well caught by the Oehms/NDR
Kultur recording team. Gerd Schaller brings out the beauties
of the score whilst not underplaying its drama.
only disappointment? Wolfgang Gropper, Director of the Braunschweig
Opera, describes in the booklet notes the process of bringing
“Fedra” to the stage, stating that the CDs, “... will thus
make Mayr’s work accessible to a much larger audience”.
... but why then provide only an Italian libretto? There are
do hope that this will not put off potential purchasers since
the curious will certainly be rewarded.
see also Review
by Robert Farr