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CD: AmazonUK
Download: Classicsonline

Johann Simon MAYR (1763-1845)
Fedra – melodrama serio in two acts (1820) [97:09]
Fedra - Capucine Chiaudani (soprano)
Teseo - Tomasz Zagorski (tenor)
Ippolito - Rebecca Nelsen (lyric soprano)
Teramene - Dae-Bum Lee (baritone)
Altide - Hyo-Jin Shin (soprano)
Filocle - Jorn Lindemann (bass)
Chorus of the Staatstheaters Braunschweig/Georg Menskes
Staatsorchester Braunschweig/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, Staatstheater Braunschweig, 28, 30 March, 5 April 2008.
In association with NDR Kultur
Italian libretto only
OEHMS CLASSICS OC920 [64:28 + 50:46]

Experience Classicsonline

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. 

Mayr 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. 

Whilst 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. 

Pesenti 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 stage. 

It 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. 

Meanwhile, 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. 

The 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. 

In 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. 

But 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”. 

Whilst 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? 

Mayr’s 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. 

As for experiment: one tiny moment will suffice. At approximately 3:06 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! 

Hearing 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 prepared performance. 

It 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. 

Her 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, amico, addio”. 

The 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.

My 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”. 

Fine ... but why then provide only an Italian libretto? There are no translations. 

I do hope that this will not put off potential purchasers since the curious will certainly be rewarded.

Ian Bailey

see also Review by Robert Farr



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