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Simon MAYR (1763 – 1838)
Il sogno di Partenope - Cantata Opera for soloists, chorus and orchestra (1817)
Andrea Lauren Brown (soprano) – Partenope; Sara Hershkowitz (soprano) – Minerva; Caroline Adler (soprano) – Urania; Florence Lousseau (mezzo) – Tersicore; Cornel Frey (tenor) – Mercurio; Robert Sellier (tenor) – Apollo; Andreas Burkhart (bass) – Il Tempo
Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble/Franz Hauk
rec. Kongregationssaal, Neuburg an der Donau, Germany, 3-6 September 2012
Italian libretto and English and German translations are available online
world premiere recording
NAXOS 8.573236 [65:56]

A cantata opera, or staged cantata, is as the term suggests a hybrid. Like the familiar secular cantatas of Bach these were usually written for a specific occasion, such as the name-day of an important figure. Mayr’s Il sogno di Partenope (“The Dream of Partenope”) was written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, one of the most magnificent and important in Europe, which had burned down in 1816. The following year the theatre was re-opened with Mayr’s work, which was dedicated to King Ferdinand I on his birthday. The work was in two acts, but only the music of the second act survives, and this is its first recording.

The text is a typical allegorical confection in which the symbolic figure of Partenope — the goddess of Naples, the città partenopea — is sent into a deep sleep. When she wakes it is to receive a new Temple of the Muses (the rebuilt San Carlo theatre) from the beneficent Ferdinand. Thomas Lindner’s booklet note gives much helpful background information on the composition and the occasion. The singers included Isabella Colbran in the title role, Giovanni David, Giovanni Rubini and Andrea Nozzari – a dream cast for a ‘dream opera’, for these were the superstars of the primo ottocento.

Mayr, a Bavarian who worked in Italy, was among the leading composers of opera before the rise of Rossini, of whose style he is in some respects the precursor – Rossini admired Mayr greatly and lauded him long after his death. It was once said ‘Germany gave Handel to England, Gluck to France, and Mayr to Italy’, and Mayr’s music is by no means unworthy of being mentioned in that company. In particular he is credited with displaying a much more imaginative use of the orchestra than his predecessors – the music historian Paul Henry Lang observed “The supposed inventor of the modern orchestra, Berlioz, owes him the lion’s share.”

This orchestral skill is demonstrated at once in the lively overture, a substantial eight minute curtain-raiser. The choruses, solos and ensembles that follow all have considerable charm, and in the case of some numbers, more than charm. The chorus ‘Spunta lieto’ with its harp and horn colours is exquisite. In fact the harp was a favourite instrument for Mayr, and the horns have much to do throughout, and give this work its characteristic tinta. The style is early bel canto — Mayr was the teacher of Donizetti — and the singers relish the opportunities the music gives them. All of them sing well, and while there are no Colbran-level star voices, soprano Andrea Laurel Brown is especially successful as Partenope. There are some extended passages of recitative — and you are given no text to follow, unless you download it — but they are tracked separately and easily skipped. The eponymous chorus and orchestra are very good indeed, and so is the recording. Franz Hauk is to be congratulated for this Mayr series for Naxos, for it is an important act of restitution, to which this issue is a very worthwhile addition.

Roy Westbrook

Previous reviews: Göran Forsling ~~ Brian Wilson


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