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Johann Simon MAYR (1763–1845)
Saffo - dramma per musica in due atti (1794)
Andrea Lauren Brown (soprano) – Saffo; Jaewon Yun (soprano) – Faone; Markus Schäfer (tenor) – Alceo; Marie Sande Papenmeyer (mezzo-soprano) – Amfizione; Katharina Ruckgaber (soprano) – Laodamia; Daniel Preis (tenor) – Euricieo
Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Chorus, Concerto de Bassus/Franz Hauk
rec. Kongregationssaal, Neuburg, Germany, 25–31 August 2014
The libretto and English and German translations can be accessed on line.
world premiere recording
NAXOS 8.660367-68 [60:56 + 60:28]

The indefatigable Franz Hauk continues his investigation of the music of Johann Simon Mayr. This Bavarian-born talent moved to Italy in his early twenties and in 1802 settled in Bergamo where he remained until his death. Among his pupils were Gaetano Donizetti. He was a hard-working composer with more than 600 works to his credit, including no fewer than 70 operas. Saffo, premiered on 17 February 1794 at La Fenice in Venice, was his first essay in that genre, and it was an auspicious debut.

This dramma per musica in due atti opens majestically and the whole sinfonia that follows is a freshly scored allegro with rolling timpani, fanfare trumpets, romantic French horns – predating Weber’s romantic forest music with more than 25 years – and playful woodwind. It comes as no surprise to learn that Mayr in his later years produced a treatise on instrumentation.

The opening chorus is powerful and Faone’s nice aria (CD 1 tr. 4) is well sung. In Alceo’s aria, sung excellently by Markus Schäfer (CD 1 tr. 6) the orchestral accompaniment is again worth noticing for little woodwind comments. Mozart immediately comes to mind.

Saffo’s entrance is announced through a nice little march tune, scoring full points again. Also the accompanied recitatives are inventively scored. Saffo’s big aria (CD 1 tr. 11) is dramatic with some florid writing, which Andrea Lauren Brown negotiates well. Amfizione´s aria Dentro lo speco incognito (CD 1 tr. 13) is dark and threatening and Alceo’s second aria Torni la pace alcor (CD 1 tr. 17) is grand in scope but rather lyrical. Coro di Cacciatori (CD 1 tr. 19) is another highly festive piece with a naughty piccolo flute sailing above the orchestra. The accompanied recitative (CD 1 tr. 24) and the finale (CD 1 tr. 25) are a well-integrated big scene with a lot of coloratura singing. These were some of the picks in act I. There is more in act II. The duet (CD 2 tr. 4) – one of only two such – contains some the most beautiful music in the opera. The next one follows suit with only a short recitative in between, and here Mozart’s spirit is even more obvious. (CD 2 tr. 6). Saffo’s Soave, dolce, cara è la morte (CD 2 tr. 9) with pizzicato accompaniment is another gem. I could go on and list almost every number, but let me just say that there are many short but attractive solos and what impresses most is the quality of the numerous accompanied recitatives, so fully worked out with telling instrumentation, adding importance to the texts. One of the best is CD 2 tr. 21, immediately followed by the expressive Pallida morte. I was wholly engrossed in the performance from beginning to end and the two hours went by in no time.

This must have been a spectacular first opera, revealing a theatrical talent far beyond the average. Having reviewed quite a few of the issues in this series I can confirm that the musical standard is high and the inventiveness of the scoring is striking. Saffo is arguably the greatest achievement so far and the playing and singing is impressively good.

Readers who have followed this series will need no persuasion from me to invest also in this issue and I hope that some who so far have resisted Mayr will change their minds and buy Saffo. They will not be disappointed.

Göran Forsling
Previous review: David Chandler (Recording of the Month)



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