About this Recording
8.660388-89 - MAYR, J.S.: Telemaco [Opera] (S.K. Thornhill, A.L. Brown, Jaewon Yun, Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Choir, Concerto de Bassus, Hauk)
English  German 

Johann Simon Mayr (1763–1845)
nell’isola di Calipso

Dramma per musica in tre atti (1797)
Libretto by Antonio Simeone Sografi (1759–1818)

Telemaco (Telemachus) – Siri Karoline Thornhill, Soprano
Calipso (Calypso) – Andrea Lauren Brown, Soprano
Eucari (Eucharis) – Jaewon Yun, Soprano
Mentore (Mentor) – Markus Schäfer, Tenor
Sacerdote di Venere (Priest of Venus) – Katharina Ruckgaber, Soprano
Sacerdote di Bacco (Priest of Bacchus) – Niklas Mallmann, Bass
Boys and Girls dedicated to Venus, Young Bacchantes (non-speaking roles), Chorus of Ithacans, Others

The Son of Odysseus

Telemachus features in the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey; indeed the Telemachy is even considered to be a narrative chronicling his development from boyhood to maturity that has been inserted into the epic. The fate of Telemachus is closely bound up with that of his father, Odysseus. Telemachus’ “development” begins with a failure—he is unable to eject from Ithaca the suitors who are importuning his mother, Penelope, while his father is away. Telemachus himself seems to be the one who is being driven out when he sets off for Pylos to visit Nestor and for Sparta to see Menelaus, in search of his father or at least of personal testimonies about him. He is mentored by Mentor, in whom the goddess Athene, alias Minerva, is revealed.

François Fénelon (1651–1715), who was Archbishop of Cambrai from 1695, wrote the Suite du quatrième livre de l’Odyssée d’Homère, ou les Aventures de Télémaque, fils d’Ulisse (Sequel to Book Four of Homer’s Odyssey, or The Adventures of Telemachus, son of Ulysses) as a didactic novel for his seven-year-old pupil Louis de Bourbon, dauphin of France and Duke of Burgundy, a grandson of Louis XIV and possible heir to the throne. When it was published in 1699, the novel was interpreted as a subtle critique of Louis XIV’s reign, however, and Fénelon was banished from court as a result—Télémaque addresses the subject of the ideal ruler who seeks peace, serves his people and does not abuse his absolute power.

Fénelon’s “novel of education” was read throughout Europe and continued to exert an influence far beyond its own time as it was reinterpreted in the spirit of the Enlightenment. The encyclopédiste Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert defined the importance of Fénelon’s Télémaque not least in terms of its transformation from a book to educate princes into one that the middle classes could read and learn from. The work was also read as a love story. Having begun life as a private schoolbook, it soon became a public textbook. Télémaque combined political, moral and sentimental readings.

The reprints and translations of Télémaque were illustrated, and the stages of his journey, his “trials” and the elaboration of a hero who is only a minor character in Homer’s Odyssey influenced other literary genres, not least characters for the stage such as the prince, Tamino, in Mozart’s Zauberflöte. The story of Telemachus’ experiences increasingly came to be presented in visual form, in all kinds of media—in fine art in the works of Angelika Kauffmann (1741–1807) and Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), for example, but also represented on carpets, enamelled onto porcelain and adorning walls in the form of tapestries. (The magnificent 1818 oil painting by Jacques-Louis David, the painter who exerts a formative influence on our image of Napoleon to this day, is entitled The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis.)

Telemachus’ adventures, especially his amorous escapades, became a popular operatic subject. The Italian opera Telemaco ovvero il valore coronato by Carlo Agostino Badia was staged in Vienna in 1702. Handel thought highly of the English opera Calypso and Telemachus by John Ernest (Johann Ernst) Galliard, though owing to rivalries it was only performed five times in London in 1712. The tragédie en musique Télémaque et Calypso by André Cardinal Déstouches was given in Paris on 15th November 1714. Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1718 melodramma in three acts, Telemaco, also features the encounter with Calypso. Christoph Willibald Gluck composed Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe for the wedding of Archduke Joseph (later Emperor Joseph II) in 1765. The Regensburg composer Maria Theresia Ahlefeldt, the daughter of Prince Alexander Ferdinand of Thurn and Taxis, set what passed between Telemachus and Calypso to music in 1792 as an opera-ballet, Telemak på Calypsos Øe. The story also provided composers such as Ferdinando Bertoni, Antonio Calegari, Pietro Alessandro Guglielmi, Peter von Winter and Wenzel Robert von Gallenberg with theatrically effective subject matter. Jean-François Le Sueur sought to revive classical Greek metres in combination with French hexameters in his tragédie lyrique Télemaque dans l’île de Calypso ou Le Triomphe de la sagesse (Telemachus on Calypso’s Isle, or The Triumph of Wisdom, 1796).

The operatic material that was in vogue in Paris was very important in furnishing the modern Venetian theatre of La Fenice with models to emulate. This is very much to be seen in the context of political upheavals at the time; Napoleon’s troops had occupied the Republic of Venice in late 1796. It is therefore no surprise that, having written Saffo (1794) and Lodoiska (1795/96), Mayr turned to the subject of Telemachus. As late as 1838, the music historian Francesco Caffi (1778–1874), a pupil of Simon Mayr’s in Venice, could still recall the “revolutionary” Venice of 1797, which can also be discerned in the “democratic theatre” in the cantata texts and opera libretti of the Paduan lawyer Simeone Antonio Sografi, who adapted French sources and wrote the libretti for Saffo and Telemaco. With its focus on classical Greek mythological material, its striving for “local colour” and its integration of instrumental interludes and dances into the rigour of the operatic action, Mayr’s conception of his new, fashionable Italian opera seria was very much inspired by the dramatic composition of Parisian operas. Telemaco is very much a reflection of its time: musically speaking, war, the military, “patriotic” awakening in Venice becomes a central focus, alongside shipwreck and tempest. By incorporating marches into the choral tableaux, Mayr is making his own musical attempt at opera direction.

During the Carnival season of 1797, Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso, a dramma per musica in three acts directed by Alberto Cavos, was given almost daily at La Fenice from 11th January to 9th February. Giuseppina Grassini was the prima donna, singing Calipso (Calypso), the male soprano Girolamo Crescentini sang Telemaco (Telemachus) and the tenor Matteo Babbini performed the part of Mentore (Mentor). The cast also included Carolina Maranesi as Eucari (Eucharis), Francesco Rossi as the Priest of Venus and Filippo Fragni as the Priest of Bacchus. The subject of the ballet was the freedom of Poland and Lodoiska, the latter being known at La Fenice because of Mayr’s eponymous opera.

Calipso’s cavatina is missing in Mayr’s score. The composer does definitely seem to have set this part of Sografi’s text, as is suggested by the joins. Whether Giuseppina Grassini “appropriated” her cavatina remains an open question. The cavatina for Temira, which is in keeping with Calipso’s ill-fated yearning for love and which was also preserved in Venice as a standalone piece, has been inserted at this point. Giuseppina Grassini also sang the role of Temira in Mayr’s cantata Temira e Aristo in May 1795.

In the Seminario Patriarcale in Venice there is a copy of Telemaco’s “Rec:vo e Cavatina / La bella età d’amore / Del Sig:r Gio. Simon Maÿer” with a note by the performer Giovanna Piatti. Both in concert and on the operatic stage, the “donna musico” was, on the one hand, taking on the repertoire of the castrati, who continued to be fêted. On the other hand, the female singers living through this period of transition were creating a new type of trouser role, which was mainly reflected in fresh operatic compositions. Napoleon is said to have remarked “Society needs strict justice; therein lies the humanity of the state; everything else is the humanity of the operatic stage”. But in view of the spirit of the age, the backdrop of human rights, the Napoleonic era and the code civil, even the “humanity of the operatic stage” had to change. Napoleon did still value male sopranos as stars of the opera, and Girolamo Crescentini and Luigi Marchesi were favoured as performers at La Fenice. But a female singer became Napoleon’s favourite—one of his lovers, Giuseppina Grassini. As successive casts show, the roles sung by male and female sopranos, by castrati and female singers, appear to have been interchangeable during this period. Meanwhile, tenor roles were becoming more important.

Must the mistakes of the father be repeated by the son? Are a father’s transgressions visited on his son, becoming the latter’s own trials and experiences? The episode with Calipso addresses precisely this issue, which is central for Telemaco’s “development”. Telemaco has to accede to his “inheritance”, succeeding his absent father as Calipso’s lover. However, for the son this destiny is not unavoidable, for Telemaco is joined by Mentore, who becomes his guide. With Mentore’s help, he eventually succeeds in gaining the required detachment, even if this takes the form of a resolute cooling-off. In Sografi and Mayr’s version, as well as Calipso, who is ruled by her emotions, there is another important female character, the sensitive Eucari, to whom Telemaco is far from indifferent. Given what was happening politically, Sografi and Mayr’s emphasis appears to be primarily on resisting love affairs and advocating heroism.

Goethe feared that a young man whom he had met when he was living in Strasbourg had become so distracted that “he would throw himself into the Rhine. Had I been certain of fishing him up again as quickly as Mentor caught Telemachus, I would have allowed him to make the leap and carried him home, sufficiently cooled, on this occasion at least.” Is it not the case that Goethe’s reminiscences also indicate Classicism’s answer to the frenzy of Sturm und Drang and Romanticism? All hope and responsibility are invested in the princes, fathers, mentors and teachers who show the subjects, children or pupils entrusted to their care not capriciousness, but responsible provision and care intended to further their development and not to hinder it.

Mayr’s opera has a tragic ending for a disappointed Calipso who is furious and foaming with rage, not for Telemaco and Mentore, who have escaped her clutches and got themselves to safety, albeit by risking their own lives. Napoleon is supposed to have said, “Wars with women are the only ones that are won by retreating”, a conclusion that seems to link him with Mentore, who is guided by Athene. Calipso, Mayr’s Queen of the Night, on the other hand, seems both to point back to the Ancien Régime and to anticipate musically the mad scenes that would be developed in later roles. Mayr’s ending is convincing whilst siding with his Calipso.

Simon Mayr’s biographer Girolamo Calvi (1801–1848) writes:

An opera furthermore has the disadvantage that if some misfortune befalls it, it is forgotten and never has another chance to try its luck, for smaller theatres dare not touch it, while major houses only want new material. I will therefore mention those of Mayr’s operas that were not a resounding success. I am obliged to count Telemaco, an opera seria in three acts with a text by Sografi, first performed at the Teatro La Fenice during Carnival 1797, among them. The Sinfonia begins with a Maestoso—nothing special—that is followed by an Andantino grazioso, a simple theme, but with a somewhat unfamiliar shape. The piece ends with diverse variations on this theme. The opera itself contains many undisputed beauties worthy of the creator of Ginevra and I misteri elusini; Calipso’s part is extremely imaginative and reminiscent of some aspects of Medea. In this composition generally, Mayr’s personality is altogether clearer. It also contains a storm and a hunt; the former just instrumental music, the latter with chorus. Mayr’s storms became so famous in their day that people esteemed them more highly than those of Sacchini and Cherubini, and indeed even Salieri’s excellent example in L’Europa riconosciuta, though I do not wish to go into detail regarding these comparisons.

Nor is the hunt introduced in the trivial manner from which it seemed almost impossible to deviate at that time; the opening is original, moving, and totally in keeping with the text. I can to some extent discern in it a model for the chorus “Viva, viva!” in Bellini’s Pirata. The conception of time and space is so apposite as to convey the feeling of being transported to Calipso’s enchanted island. I have rarely encountered this, and did not do so again until Rossini’s Donna del lago. It is a conception that poet and composer often allow to emerge in places, but are only very rarely able to carry through to create a pleasing whole, though achieving this is the culmination of the composer’s endeavour.

(Girolamo Calvi, “Johann Simon Mayr”, Wiener allgemeine Musik-Zeitung, ed. August Schmidt, 6/54 [Tuesday 5th May 1846], 214f.)

Iris Winkler
Translation: Sue Baxter


CD 1

[1] Sinfonia

Act I

[2] The nymph Eucari describes Calipso’s inconsolable lovelorn grief. She was once forsaken by Ulisse. [3] Wishing to soothe Calipso’s anger and suffering, Eucari and her companions go to the goddess’s cave. [4] Calipso emerges and gives vent to her pain. [5] Calipso sings of her broken heart: “Sola, dolente… Tradita amante […] degg’io languir.”—“Alone and in pain… I must languish, I, whose love has been betrayed.” [6] In conversation with Eucari, Calipso reflects on the past. She, an immortal goddess, was left in the lurch by a mortal man, Ulisse. [7] Wishing to revenge herself, Calipso goes up a cliff and magics up a violent storm. [8] The storm (orchestra). Telemaco, Ulisse’s son, and his Ithacan companions are shipwrecked off the coast of the island. [9] The storm has subsided. Telemaco believes he is alone on the shore: “Tutto io perdei”—“I have lost everything”. [10] Eucari finds the shipwrecked Telemaco and gives him a warning, showing him the inscription bearing Calipso’s vow to revenge herself. Telemaco reads his father’s name. [11] Telemaco tries to collect his thoughts. [12] Telemaco discovers that his companions have survived the cataclysm. The only person missing is his friend and tutor Mentore. [13] Telemaco is worried about Mentore. The Ithacans suggest he may have drowned. [14] Alone, Eucari feels both pity and a liking for Telemaco. Telemaco appears with his entourage. Calipso enters. Recognising Telemaco, she tells him of her feelings, speaking of love, betrayal and deception. [15] Telemaco is to make amends for his father’s crimes. [16] Calipso’s aria hints at her plan—either love or death. [17] The scene changes to joyful festivities in the Temple of Venus. They are designed to lift Calipso’s spirits and restore her cheerfulness. [18] The nymphs commence with a dance. [19] Telemaco is enraptured by the bucolic landscape. Calipso joins him. He asks: “Gran dea, che feci io mai?”—“Great goddess, whatever have I done?”. [20] Telemaco asks for Calipso’s favour. [21] In a chorus, the Ithacans add their voices to his request. [22] Calipso turns their thoughts to a magnificent festival. Telemaco repeats his request for mercy. Suddenly Mentore, who had been presumed dead, appears. [23] Mentore is appalled at the games and dalliances. [24] Seeing his charge in danger, he chides him, demanding that he show the steadfastness befitting of a man. [25] Mentore gets into an argument with Telemaco and Calipso. Calipso threatens him with death, but he is heroically unafraid. [26] Finale I: Telemaco oscillates between affection and fear and Calipso between hope of love and anger; only Mentore defends his principles.

Act II

[27] Eucari consults the Priest of Venus. She is in love with Telemaco. [28] The Priest warns Eucari against Calipso’s anger. [29] Eucari resolves to hide from Calipso. At this very moment, the goddess appears, wearing a seductive hunting outfit. [30] Calipso tries to ensnare Mentore and hold him and his companions captive on the island. Mentore does not yield; he wishes to depart. Calipso refuses to let him. Her feelings oscillate between resentment, revenge, rage and a yearning for love. [31] The two characters’ duet reveals their different standpoints: Mentore tries to convince by means of reason and justice, while Calipso speaks of her soul’s torment and is seeking inner peace. [32] The scene changes to the Temple of Bacchus. A joyful celebration is underway with hymns to Venus, Bacchus and Cupid. [33] Calipso addresses the people: joy and respect for the gods should go hand in hand. [34] The chorus asks Calipso to sing a song. [35]i Calipso sings about love, all the while gazing at Telemaco.

CD 2

[1] Calipso invites Mentore to sing a song as well. [2] Mentore sings about the warrior’s laurels, warning against love’s enticements: “Si guardi da amore chi debole ha il cor”—“Anyone whose heart is susceptible should beware of love”. [3] Telemaco cannot see any contradiction; he sings about the fire of youth. [4] He yields to his passions: “Se v’è chi sdegna un placido tenero e caro affetto, un cor non chiude in petto, un’alma in sen non ha”—“If anyone disdains a peaceful, tender and precious feeling of affection, then he has no heart in his bosom, he has no soul in his breast”. [5] Calipso invites those present to go hunting. A merry hunting song is struck up and dies away in the distance. [6] A few nymphs continue their dancing. [7] Eucari discovers the ship that Mentore has had repaired and readied for departure. [8] Eucari and Telemaco confess their love to each other. They are surprised by Calipso. [9] Beside herself, Calipso threatens Eucari and Telemaco with death. Eucari is taken prisoner. [10] Calipso sings a lament. She realises that any revenge she might take will be in vain if her own fate remains unaltered. [11] Calipso wishes to prevent the strangers from leaving. The priests of Bacchus are to help her. [12] The chief priest sees his plans succeed and pours scorn on Mentore, whose sagacity he secretly fears. [13] Telemaco is called to account by Mentore, who invites him to choose whether to stay on the island or to leave with him. Telemaco follows Mentore, but he is concerned about Eucari’s uncertain fate. [14] Telemaco asks Calipso to spare Eucari’s life, but since he cannot make up his mind to embrace love and remain on the island, he seems to forfeit Eucari’s life in Calipso’s eyes. The funeral march intended for Eucari that is now struck up reflects Telemaco’s own state of mind. [15] Mentore and the trumpets’ call to arms announce the departure of the ship. Telemaco is torn. [16] The Priest of Bacchus alludes to Calipso’s plan to set fire to the Ithacans’ vessel. The Priest of Venus reports to Calipso that everything has been put in place for her plan to be executed. [17] Telemaco finds out that Calipso has apparently pardoned Eucari. [18] Calipso reproaches Telemaco. [19] In a duet, she confesses to Telemaco that she loves him. The two of them are horrified by their fate.


[20] An Ithacan tells Telemaco that Mentore has come. Mentore pretends to take his leave. He shows Telemaco a letter from Ulisse admonishing his son to behave honourably and to take care of his country and his mother. [21] Telemaco is left alone and in turmoil. [22] In an aria, Mentore repeats once again the alternatives he has sketched out for Telemaco—a state of constant pleasure against the loss of both fatherland and honour. [23] Telemaco is still plagued by doubts. [24] The chorus announces that the ship, which had been ready to depart, is in flames. [25] Mentore sights a Phoenician ship and orders the Ithacans to take refuge on board. [26] Telemaco is plagued by doubts and ridden with guilt. Mentore says guilt is part of the human lot and calls on him to have courage. [27] Telemaco finally swears he will follow Mentore through any and every danger. The two of them climb to the top of a cliff. [28] Calipso commands them to stop, but in full view of everyone, Mentore pushes Telemaco off the cliff into the sea and jumps in after him. [29] The sound of trumpets indicates that the two men have been rescued by the Phoenician ship. Calipso rages against her fate. [30] She curses her immortality and bewails her eternal despair.

Franz Hauk and Iris Winkler
Translation: Sue Baxter

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