A World Premiere Recording of Mayr's Saffo
Johann Simon Mayr (1763 -- 1845) was a German composer who moved to Italy with the encouragement of a patron and became a prolific composer of opera. Mayr's extensive compositional output languished in obscurity until its championship in recent years by the German conductor Franz Hauk. This new recording by Hauk offers a rare opportunity to hear Mayr's first opera, "Saffo", which was originally presented in 1794 at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice and has not been much heard since. Hauk conducts and plays the harpsichord. The Simon Mayr Chorus, which Hauk founded to present Mayr's works, the Bavarian State Opera Chorus, and five singers perform in this world premiere recording of "Saffo". The work is an opera seria in two acts with a libretto by Antonio Simone Sografi. It is a delight to hear and to get to know this music.
Sappho was the great woman poet of ancient Greece who, according to legend, threw herself of a cliff brokenhearted after rejection in love. Mayr's opera is a retelling of the story as Saffo consults an oracle together with Alceo, a young poet who loves her, and Faone. Saffo and Faone earlier had an unsuccessful relationship which Faone broke off to marry another woman. When she learns of the death of Faone's wife, Saffo wants to win Faone back, a goal which the young hunter discourages. In the opera, Saffo is about to throw herself off the cliff, following the dark sayings of the oracle. But Faone has a change of heart, rescues her, and he and Saffo, presumably, live happily ever after. Mayr's opera appears to be moving tragically but shifts to a happy ending.
Mayr's music combines the classicism of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven with the developing Italian bel canto style. At the time of "Saffo", Beethoven still had not moved permanently to Vienna, but Mozart's influence is apparent as is the influence of Gluck. The influence of these composers is combined with florid, virtuosic singing. The solo roles in "Saffo" are all for high voices and, in Mayr's day, were all performed by men.
The musical numbers are varied and lovely. They included orchestral interludes, choruses, arias, duets, and recitifs. The recitifs are "dry" with harpsichord accompaniment or accompanied by orchestra. The accompanied recifits are lyrical with well-developed vocal and orchestral writing. Mayr composed imaginatively for orchestra particularly for woodwinds. The arias tend to follow a pair of recitifs and are lyrical with a focus on the emotion of the character at that moment of the story, as an aria by Gluck would do. But the singing line is heavily ornamented, with dramatic reaches into the high register, and florid.
Saffo is the primary character and her complex and varied singing role is well performed by the American soprano, Andrea Lauren Brown. Her two would-be suitors, Faone and Alceo have large roles as well and are performed by soprano Jaewon Yun and tenor Markus Schaefer. All the performers, together with Hauk, show a great deal of commitment to and involvement with this unusual recording project.
This recording has received deserved praise from the critics, both for bringing a neglected opera to life and for the quality of the performance. MusicWeb International named "Saffo" its "Recording of the Month" for March, 2016. David Chandler's review states:
"The Naxos studio recording is bright and forward to the point of occasionally being a little claustrophobic, but there is something gripping about its immediacy. Franz Hauk, who has done so much for Mayr ... and is surely the greatest living authority on the composer, conducts with authority and panache. The singers are uniformly impressive, with the principals entering into the drama of the opera rather than just singing beautifully."
Richard Osborne's review on Gramophone also offers high praise for the opera and performance and concludes: "raise a glass to the fact that this is a properly made studio recording, not some hit-or-miss theatre affair. Saffo and its inspired revivalists deserve no less."
I have enjoyed getting to know Mayr's music through the recordings of Hauk and was moved to hear this rare performance of "Saffo". This recording will appeal to adventurous lovers of opera. The liner notes include information about the opera together with a good synopsis which helps integrate the story and the music. The libretto is available for download on the Naxos website. Naxos kindly made this CD available to me for review.
Total Time: 2:01:24