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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK

Johann Simon MAYR (1763-1845)
Fedra - melodramma serio in two acts (1820)
Fedra, second wife of the king - Capuine Chiaudani (soprano); Teseo - Tomasz Zagorski (tenor); Ippolito - Rebecca Nelson (lyric soprano); Atide, confidante of Fedra - Hyo-Jin Shin (soprano); Teramene - Dae-Bum Lee (bass);
State Orchestra and Chorus of Braunschweig/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, State Theatre Braunschweig, 28, 30 March, 5 April 2008.
world premiere recording
OEHMS CLASSICS OC920 [64.28 + 50.46]
Experience Classicsonline

German born, Mayr was studying in Italy when his patron died. Faced with an uncertain future the composer Niccolo Pacini encouraged him to write opera. Mayr’s first opera, Saffo (1794) attracted other commissions with his Ginevra di Scozia premiered in Trieste (1801) making him known throughout Italy. Subsequently Mayr wrote operas for Naples, Rome, Milan and Venice. His works were also performed in Germany, London, St. Petersburg and New York among other places. In all Mayr wrote over sixty operatic works, many in the buffo style. Significantly he brought more vividness and orchestral detail to opera buffa, with depictions of storms, earthquakes and the like as well as complex choral scenes. These built on and extended the compositional style of Domenico Cimarosa (1749 –1801) and Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) with Mayr’s influence being readily heard in the operas of both Rossini and Donizetti.
As well as composition of operas, Mayr found fame as a composer of church music and as author of a treatise on Haydn. He also founded a Conservatory in Bergamo where his students included Donizetti whom he taught, without charge, for ten years. Mayr also paid for Donizetti’s study with Padre Mattei, a renowned teacher of counterpoint. He later ceded commissions to his pupil that helped his career to take off. Mayr’s most famous work is his Medea in Corinto (1813). He eventually went blind. Verdi, recognising his influence on Italian music, perhaps even his own, attended his funeral.
It was in the papers of Verdi’s estate, only recently opened to scholars, that a copy of the score of Mayr’s Fedra was discovered. The opera, premiered at La Scala in 1830, is based on Racine’s play derived from the Greek myth concerning Fedra the second wife of King Theseus. Fedra becomes infatuated with her stepson during the king’s absence and later commits suicide after accusing the stepson of having seduced her. The rather fractured synopsis in the booklet further complicates the story by using the names from the play rather than those in the opera. The libretto is given in full in Italian but without any translations. A sensible track-related synopsis using the opera’s named characters would have been a huge benefit to my overall enjoyment of Mayr’s music and this strong live performance.
The discovery of the score and Ricordi’s subsequent publication caused the Braunschweig State Opera to change their schedule in order to stage the work in 2008, its first ever performance in Germany. In the name part Capuine Chiaudani sings the role with vocal warmth and a wide range of expression if not always being ideally steady. Very much in the bel canto mode is the flexible light soprano of Rebecca Nelson in the trouser role of Ippolito. She gives an all-round satisfactory feel to the solo singing (CD 1 tr.7. CD 2 tr.10). Tomasz Zagorski is a strongly sung Teseo with the hallmarks of a bel-cantoist in his vocal strength and range as well as in recitative (CD 2 trs.12-13). As Teramene, Dae-Bum Lee’s bass is strong and smooth (CD 1 tr.3).  On the rostrum Gerd Schaller handles the ensembles and recitative with a felicitous touch. He keeps the plot moving along yet allows for the enjoyment of Mayr’s melodies and dramatic touch. The chorus sing with commitment and vibrancy. There are a few stage noises.
Mayr, aged 57 at the time of the writing of Fedra was at his compositional peak, with imaginative use of woodwind and complex ensemble as in the quartet that concludes act 1 (CD 1 trs 13-14). The music for the singers is very much in the bel canto style with more dramatic impulse and demand than found among many of Mayr’s contemporaries or, indeed, some who followed. His imaginative user of the instruments of the orchestra was doubtless a model for his pupil Donizetti, who by the time of the composition of Fedra had still to make his mark with Zoraida Di Granata (see review).
As far as I am aware other of Mayr’s operas featuring on records are restricted to Ginevra di Scozia and Medea in Corinto both issued by Opera Rara, ORC 23 and ORC 11, each on three CDs. The former was recorded at a revival at Trieste to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the premiere and features Elizabeth Vidal and Daniella Barcelona among the principals. The latter has the spinto soprano Jane Eaglen alongside Opera Rara regulars Yvonne Kenny, Bruce Ford and Alastair Miles as well as the Rossini specialist Raul Gimenez. In 2008 Opera Rara also issued a CD titled Mayr Rediscovered (ORR 244) involving excerpts from eight of his operatic works including the two mentioned as well as Fedra. Those issues benefit greatly from the full librettos and translations as well as the historical background, synopses and scholarly essays by Jeremy Commons, who is referred to in the notes with this issue. The background information with this issue mentions the Milan premiere, and its cast and reception, as well as the staging at Braunschweig from which this welcome recording derives.
Robert J Farr


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