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8.573236 - MAYR, J.S.: Sogno di Partenope (Il) [Cantata Opera] (Munich State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Choir and Ensemble, Hauk)
Simon Mayr (1763–1845)
Cantata Opera for soloists, chorus and orchestra Naples 1817
Partenope – Andrea Lauren Brown, Soprano
Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus
From a musico-historical point of view it was Johann Simon (Giovanni Simone) Mayr who, in his own cautious way, acted as an intermediary between the ossification of the formal genre of opera seria in the late eighteenth century and the melodramma of the nineteenth century. By drawing on his knowledge of the Viennese classics he renewed instrumentation and the handling of the orchestra and harmony so that through his own work, and as a teacher in Bergamo, he was able to create a precedent for musical training. This turnaround took place, in a gentle and moderate way, in the first ten years of the nineteenth century in a city whose taste in music and theatre was, in different ways, fast and progressive. Consequently a musical style could evolve which at the same time would be a constituent of opera for the following decades: a mode of expression derived from the distillable personal styles of the period, which Mayr essentially reformed, developed further and supported and which the budding composer Rossini adopted from around 1810. Examples of this characteristic growth are already present in Mayr’s early operas: the structures of Rossini’s operas, with their characteristically rhythmic basic patterns in the form of ostinati chords and the freshness of the melodic line, are already very present in the pre-Rossinian environment, even in that period when bel canto opera in its strictest sense came into being and hence the style of the early nineteenth century. Works such as Mayr’s Ginevra di Scozia or Adelasia ed Aleramo in the field of opera seria or L’avaro and L’amor coniugale in their continuum of opera buffa and semiseria already display all these ingredients at a time when Rossini the opera composer had not yet emerged.
Il sogno di Partenope is usually classified in the genre of the staged cantata. A cantata is understood to mean a multi-movement work for voices with instrumental accompaniment in which the range can encompass one or several soloists as well as a piano or full orchestra. In Mayr’s time every composer of operas also wrote staged cantatas which in most cases were written for specific occasions and had a panegyric background—perhaps to celebrate the birthday or name day of a ruler—and came with a mythological-allegorical plot which served to glorify, even to deify the person being honoured. Since such pieces were written for specific occasions they were usually performed only once, or more rarely twice, and then they sank into obscurity, often to be recycled by their composers into other musical works. Mayr composed this two-act work on the occasion of the rebuilding of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples which had been destroyed by a disastrous fire on the night of the 12 and 13 February 1816. Exactly eleven months later the building, which had been restored to plans drawn up by the court architect and universally-celebrated stage designer Antonio Niccolini, was consecrated with a performance of Il sogno di Partenope.
The libretto of this melodramma allegorico—dedicated to King Ferdinand l on his birthday—was provided by Urbano Lampredi, a well-known classicist and man of letters who had also made a name for himself in the field of journalism. What we have is an allegorical cantata with a multitude of stereotypical allusions to, and philological background knowledge of, classical Greek antiquity. As the poet explains in his foreword, he aims to embellish the conflagration and the theatre’s rising again with mythological allegories and to point to Polyphlegon, a character invented by him, as the cause of the fire. In Italian the word poliflegonte comes from ancient Greek and means “the all-consuming one” and who, as a symbol of the irrationally destructive fire, is finally defeated by Minerva, the goddess of the arts and of reason.
What emerges is a phantasmagorical game of deception in which gods, muses, genii and evil spirits—with Polyphlegon leading the way—confront mankind with the cosmic principles. The Temple of the Muses (i.e. the Teatro San Carlo), which is central to the plot, is at first afflicted by the negative forces of decline and destruction but is finally restored by Olympic forces and by figurative shining lights. Ferdinand l had complied with Lampredi’s wish that the sad event should vanish from the consciousness of the populace as though in a vision; with this imagery in his mind the poet sends Parthenope into a deep sleep by means of Mercury’s wand (in Italian Parthenope is the tutelary goddess of Naples, the città partenopea) and in the meantime, through Time Personified, allows the theatre to shine with a new light. In a closing chorus Ferdinand is lauded by all as their undying ruler and on his birthday he gives to the now-wakened Parthenope (i.e. Naples) the gift of the new Temple of the Muses, San Carlo itself.
As Stendhal, who was present in the audience, reported, Il sogno di Partenope was met with great acclaim, to which the phenomenal casting of the original singers doubtless contributed. Isabella Colbran created the rôle of Parthenope, Giovanni David that of Mercury, Giovanni Battista Rubini, Apollo and Andrea Nozzari that of Polyphlegon. All that survives of the score is the autograph of the second act; even so, what shines out everywhere from the surviving sections is Mayr’s ripe and opulent idiom, which is so characteristic of his later work.
This second act consists of the following numbers: a chorus with solos from Urania and Terpsichore (In questa sede) , an aria from Parthenope (Deh! per pietà) , an aria with chorus from Mercury (Non temer) , a duet between Parthenope and Mercury (Che avvenne!) , an aria from Time Personified, ‘Il Tempo’ (Affrettino l’ore) , a quartet with chorus for Minerva, Mercury, Apollo und Urania (Finché il Borbonico genio) , a chorus (Spunta lieto) , an aria with chorus from Parthenope (E fia ver già?) , a quartet with chorus from Parthenope, Minerva, Mercury and Apollo (All’ombra placida)  and finally the closing chorus of jubilation (Celebriamo il Monarcha immortale) , all with accompanied recitative. If only we had this work complete it would surely mark a further point of culmination in Mayr’s musico-dramatic output. What has come down to us makes the loss of the initial act all the more bitter.
Mayr’s work shows just how blurred are the boundaries between an “operatic” cantata and a fully-fledged opera. It is surely no accident that, from the outset, even Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims was considered to be an opera and nowadays no one would think of referring to it as a staged cantata; yet it was Rossini himself who had originally coined the phrase. So for the purposes of the title of this article a compromise genre, a hitherto rarely-encountered concept, is suggested for Il sogno di Partenope, namely that of a cantata opera.
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