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8.660367-68 - MAYR, J.S.: Saffo [Opera] (A.L. Brown, M. Schäfer, Jaewon Yun, Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Choir, Concerto de Bassus, Hauk)
Johann Simon Mayr (1763–1845)
Dramma per musica in due atti
Saffo (Sappho) – Andrea Lauren Brown, Soprano
Followers of Saffo • Poets of Mytilene, following Alcaeus
Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus
Franz Hauk, Harpsichord and Conductor
Born in the Bavarian town of Mendorf, near Ingolstadt, in 1763, Simon Mayr was the son of a schoolteacher and showed some early ability as a musician. He was a pupil at the Jesuit College in Ingolstadt, before entering the university to study theology, while continuing to demonstrate great versatility as a musician. His musical training, however, only began in earnest in 1787, when a patron, noticing his talent, took him to Italy. There, from 1789, he studied with Carlo Lenzi, master of the music at Bergamo Cathedral. There followed, through the generosity of another patron, a period of study with Bertoni in Venice. His early commissioned compositions were largely in the form of sacred oratorios, but in 1794 his opera Saffo was staged in Venice. His turning to opera owed much to the encouragement he received from Piccinni and Peter von Winter, and other operas followed for Venice and then for La Scala, Milan, and for other Italian theatres, with an increasingly large number of performances abroad. In 1802 he followed Lenzi as maestro di cappella at the cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, becoming director of the cathedral choir school three years later. Mayr held these positions until his death in 1845. As a teacher he won the particular respect of his pupil Gaetano Donizetti. He did much to promote the knowledge of the Viennese classical composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in Italy. His own style reflects something of this, but essentially in an Italian context. He was, needless to say, immensely prolific as a composer, with nearly seventy operas to his credit between 1794 and 1824, and some six hundred sacred works.
Saffo Saffo – Johann Simon Mayr’s first opera seria success at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice
In 1787 Johann Simon Mayr left his native Bavaria and, with the financial backing of Baron Thomas de Bassus and his son Dominikus, made his way first to Poschiavo, then to Bergamo. There he sought out Carlo Lenzi, then maestro di cappella at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, as his teacher. In 1788 a grant enabled him to move on to Venice, where he studied composition with Ferdinando Bertoni, who introduced him to the important institutions and people in the city.
Operatic performances were an integral part of Italian cultural life. After the largest and most important Venetian opera house, San Benedetto, burned down in 1774 and the management association and owners of the land failed to come to an agreement about rebuilding it, the management decided to build a theatre of its own. There were already six opera houses at that time and the authorities initially refused to build another, but then ended up doing so nevertheless, so if the new opera house was to succeed, not just musically, but also economically, its programming had to set it apart from its competitors.
This it did. Its name already departed from the norm. Whereas, until then, it had been usual to name an opera house after its owner or the neighbouring “parocchia”, the new house was named after a mythical creature, whose choice could not have been more apt: Gran Teatro La Fenice. Like the mythical bird, the phoenix, it arose from the ashes and would, in the future, do so again. It wooed its audience with numerous premières and the most important singers of the day. Thus between 1792, when La Fenice opened, and 1814, the year of the Vienna Congress, for example, it staged 52 premières. According to legend, Mayr played violin in the orchestra at La Fenice for a time.
After just two years, the Teatro La Fenice was one of the most famous opera houses in Europe. Mayr had the good fortune to have his first opera scheduled for Carnival. This period was the most important in the operatic year. Theatre-goers attended performances wearing costumes and masks. This obviously made going to the theatre more attractive, drove up audience numbers and made a significant contribution to an establishment’s profits.
Mayr’s opera seria Saffo was first heard on 18 February 1794 at the Teatro La Fenice. It was repeated on 19 and 26 February of that same year. Saffo was Mayr’s first opera, and its success helped him progress as an operatic composer. The performance was given to a full house, and the audience response was enthusiastic. The report in Il Nuovo Postiglione. Novelle del Mondo, for example, speaks of a “grandiose spectacle and sustained applause”.
The singers for the first performance were Marianna Vinci (Saffo) and Matteo Babini (Alceo). The role of Faone was sung by the castrato Girolamo Crescentini, who was enjoying huge success in Venice at that time. Mayr remained faithful to the practice that had been customary for opera seria of composing the male lead for a male soprano. Nowadays, these so-called “trouser rôles” are mostly sung by female sopranos.
The early years of Teatro La Fenice had a decisive influence on Mayr; he composed seven opere serie in just eight years (1794-1801). Just a year after the première of Saffo, he received his second commission for La Fenice and composed Lodoiska.
In his oratorios Jacob a fugians (1791) [Naxos 8.573237] and Sisara (1793) and his cantata Femio (1791), Mayr had already tried out the prescribed forms of contemporary opera which, around 1800, consisted in alternating arias, secco and accompanied recitative and instrumental numbers. Mayr, however, varies this scheme in an attempt to achieve dramatic coherence. While an opera seria is generally divided into three acts, Saffo occupies two. Identifying Mayr’s stylistic traits as an opera composer vis-à-vis those of his competitors is somewhat problematical, because relatively little of the enormous output of new operas has hitherto been made accessible, but it does seem as though the up-and-coming young composer set out to surprise his audience and win them over with carefully planned and striking musical solutions in his first opera.
The four-part Sinfonia (Adagio maestoso – Allegro – Andantino – Allegro) already follows neither the Italian nor the French pattern and displays contrapuntal combinations that may have been inspired by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony, K 504, or the overture to The Magic Flute.
The opera’s accompanied recitatives are worked out in detail, mostly with string accompaniment, occasionally supported by woodwind, the Affekt (emotion) being carefully brought out in each instance. This is also true of numbers such as Saffo’s opening aria, where the character’s inner agitation is mirrored in the image of a turbulent ocean. Among Mayr’s theoretical writings is a treatise on instrumentation, produced in his later years, which would merit rediscovery. It shows how much thought he devoted to the musical realisation of text and the targeted use of precisely the woodwind instruments.
Other delicate “registrations” worthy of note include the wind band-style accompaniment of the recitative Nume del ciel (CD 2, ) and the supportive accompanying string figures of the ensuing duet Langue d’amor (CD 2, ), and Saffo’s aria Soave, dolce, (CD 2, ) where a pair of oboes give expression and colour to the heroine’s amorous torment. There are also striking sound effects in the male chorus Dormi, riposa (CD 2, ), which is set into a recitative in several sections and gives vivid expression to the vision Faone sees in his dream. Finally, it is worth mentioning the effective construction of the finale to Act One, Amor crudel (CD 1, ), where the chorus provides the momentum.
Perhaps Johann Simon Mayr’s musical achievement was not least to combine innovations from the so-called “Viennese School” of Classicism with the Italian ideal of bel canto, aided by his particular sensitivity to formal proportion and dramatic development.
Saffo (Sappho), Alceo (Alcaeus), Faone (Phaon) and the Chorus of Priests assemble in front of the temple in the Greek city of Leucadia. The Pythia, or High Priestess, alias Amfizione, is to pronounce an oracle inspired by Apollo (). Faone, a huntsman from Lesbos, sacrifices game he has shot, hoping for relief from the torments of his love (–). Alceo is the leader of the group of Greek poets (). He presents himself as an worshipper of Cupid and Venus (), but is secretly in love with Saffo. Announced by the Pythia (), Saffo enters to an instrumental introduction (). She laments her sufferings and her lovesick longing. The Pythia, or priestess, seeks to comfort her (). For a moment, Saffo appears to be comforted (), though she compares her torment to an ocean wave whipped up by the wind until it towers aloft before breaking (). The Pythia suddenly shows a different side of herself: She is hoping for a fresh victim (–). Alceo meets Saffo and confesses his love to her; he wishes to save her from the disaster that threatens (–). Torni la pace al cor (May peace return to your heart, ). He reports that Faone is in Leucadia visiting the temple. This only increases Saffo’s feeling of disquiet (). Faone’s friends strike up a chorus in an attempt to cheer up their melancholy associate (). But Faone is filled with pain as he recalls his dead wife, Cirene (). Saffo and Faone meet by chance. Faone once left Saffo and bestowed his affections on Cirene. Saffo still clearly loves Faone; he, of course, is not interested (). He curses his fate and dreams of finding Cirene in Hades (). For Saffo, Faone’s rejection is like an oracle: she contemplates her own death, planning to jump off the cliff into the sea (). The priests urge Saffo, Faone and Alceo to submit to the Pythia’s guidance (–).
Inside the temple. Led in by a processional chorus (), Saffo, Alceo and Faone make their prayers to Apollo, asking that he hear them, grant their wishes (–) and mediate in their unhappiness. Laodamia and Euricleo try to console Saffo (– and ) out of compassion (). But they are only fleetingly successful (). Saffo, of course, is envisaging death: Soave, dolce, cara è la morte quando ella è termine d’un rio dolor (Death is sweet and pleasant when it puts an end to terrible pain, –). The Pythia appears before the assembled people, makes a brief, enigmatic utterance, and quickly withdraws (). Her appearance is interpreted differently by the various protagonists, each of them seeing it as confirmation of their own view of things (). Alceo is tormented by his ardent love for Saffo, but would be prepared to renounce her in favour of Faone (–). Ah tutti voi volete tutti stracciarmi il cor (Ah, all of you wish to tear my heart in pieces, he declaims in his aria (). Saffo then threatens Faone with her demise: Ma ingrato, trema, lo stesso Apollo, egli medesimo sia il Nume ancor della vendetta mia (But tremble, ungrateful man, Apollo himself will be the god of my revenge, ). But he is wrapped up in the shadows of the past (–). The Pythia endeavours to lend support to Saffo’s dark thoughts (- and ) and to prepare her death (), while Saffo seems reconciled to her fate () and, in a state of apparent delusion, takes leave of the world in a touching song: Pallida morte, vieni (Come, pale death, ). Faone, too, succumbs to a depression that is close to death (), standing alone and dreaming about his dead wife Cirene: Dormi, riposa (Sleep, take your rest, ). Furies seem to encircle him, Cirene appears and asks him to take pity on Saffo (). Faone awakens, torn between various emotions (). Meanwhile Saffo climbs the Leucadian cliffs, intending to plunge into the deep, but Faone resolves to save her (). The final chorus of rejoicing proclaims the lovers’ union ().
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