MAYR Arianna in Nasso • Franz Hauk, cond; Cornelia Horak (Arianna); Thomas Michael Allen (Bacco); Simon Mayr Ch & Ens • NAXOS 8.573065 (57:46 Text and Translation)
I have included the text icon in the headnote indicating that texts and translations are included, which is a bit of an exaggeration. As usual, Naxos makes text and translation available at noRead more charge from their website, which leaves you with a printout that is a bit cumbersome for storage. You can print in “booklet size,” but the result is a bit thick to fit inside the jewel case. I wish Naxos would offer the buyer a choice, with an extra charge for full text inclusion—but at least they do make it available.
Naxos’s project of recording the major works of Simon Mayr is an extremely important event, introducing to most of us a composer of genuine individuality and importance. You can find reviews of many of their recordings by different critics in the Fanfare Archive. Virtually all, no matter who wrote them, are positive. Mayr was born in 1763 in Bavaria but in his 20s he went to study in Italy and never returned. His biggest claim to the fame granted by history is that he was the principal teacher of Donizetti, who admired Mayr’s music greatly. But during Mayr’s lifetime, his religious works and his operas (he wrote almost 70 of them!) were regularly performed. The operas, however, gave way to the enormous popularity of Rossini, who was 29 years Mayr’s junior. Mayr was also instrumental in giving the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven its first exposure in Italy. To give you a historical context for Mayr, here are birth and death dates for him and his important contemporaries and near-contemporaries:
As you can see, while he was born earlier than any other on that list, he not only outlived Mozart and Beethoven, but he also went on composing long after Rossini’s curious retirement. Mayr spanned a major generational change, and his music has elements of both eras, and also of both the Austro-Germanic and Italian schools.
Arianna in Nasso is described as a “cantata in one act,” and really is almost an un-staged opera. The soprano part was written for the great Isabella Colbran, who went on to marry Rossini. The importance of Mayr can be presumed from the fact that the new Teatro San Carlo in Naples was inaugurated in 1817 with a performance of his cantata Partenope’s Dream, another work written for Colbran. The success of that led to the composition, also in 1817, of this work. The most imaginative vocal writing in the piece is to be found in the arias, and to some degree even in the recitatives, for soprano. The tenor writing is a bit more ordinary, though it is technically demanding as well. The choral writing is dramatic and very effective, as is the orchestral writing. It is in these elements that one hears the influence of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven on Mayr, despite the fact that he spent virtually his entire career and adult life in Italy. This is attractive, engaging, and dramatic music, with a real face to it. Anyone who responds to vocal music of the late-18th and early-19th centuries will find this a wonderful discovery.
Conductor Hauk has made a specialty of Mayr, even forming the Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble in 2003, and he has absorbed the essence of the composer and conducts with absolute conviction and a sure knowledge of how to pace the music. His chorus is not the most elegant in terms of tonal richness or evenness of blend, but they sing in tune and with real involvement in the score and the text. The same can also be said for the orchestra, which occasionally sounds a bit thin and grainy, but which plays together and goes beyond mere note-reading.
Both soloists here are good, with the strongest praise going to soprano Horak. Hers is not a voice of unique timbre, but it is an attractive lyric soprano with freedom on top and agility throughout. She sings with imagination, and conveys Ariadne’s happiness at the conclusion with a glowing tone. Tenor Allen also displays quite remarkable agility in the work’s coloratura writing, but there is very little variety of color in his basically white voice. It must be noted, however, that often in rarely performed repertoire we have to put up with utterly inadequate performances, and that is not the case here. This performance will provide much pleasure, and I anticipate returning frequently to Arianna in Nasso. The sound is well balanced and just a touch on the dry side. Highly recommended.