MAYR Gioas • Franz Hauk, cond; Andrea Lauren Brown (sop); Robert Sellier (ten); Cornel Frey (ten); Andreas Burkhart (bs); Bavarian St Op Ch; Simon Mayr Ch & Ens • NAXOS 8.572710-11 (2 CDs: 111:22)
Only two issues ago (36:2), I had my first taste of music by Simon Mayr, on a Naxos CD featuring three of the composer’s concertos led, as here, by Franz Hauk, who seems to be somewhat of a Mayr specialist. In that review, I was forced to admit that I was not previously familiar with Mayr, most likely because hisRead more main area of endeavor was opera, a field in which I claim no particular expertise. The review concluded by wondering if, as mainly a composer of opera, Mayr was best represented by a disc of his concertos, and with a promise to get back to the reader with an answer once I gained more familiarity with his work.
The wait wasn’t a long one. Here we have Mayr’s Gioas (Joash, King of Judea), designated a “parody oratorio,” so-called because it draws upon Mayr’s opera, I misteri eleusini for its material. I gather that the work bears certain similarities to the composer’s David in the Cave of Engedi, reviewed by Patrick Rucker in 32:4, and Samuele, both previously recorded for Naxos by Hauk. A parody oratorio, as I understand it, involves the practice of adapting popular operatic works to religious texts so they could be performed during Holy Week while his Holiness looked the other way.
Gioas dates from 1823 and is set to a libretto by an unknown author (or one who preferred to remain anonymous) that tells a story of internecine blood-letting over rights to the throne, treachery, and retribution, all of which through self-sacrifice and appeasement of various gods, goddesses, and priests—that’s the religious aspect—culminates in a happy ending. The work is appropriately referred to in the program note as “pseudo-sacred,” or, to call it what it is, a barely disguised excuse to present an unstaged opera in the guise of an oratorio. Mayr was not alone in fashioning such Church-sanctioned entertainments. The tradition persisted, mainly in Italy, through much of the 19th century, with Emilio Cianchi’s Giudetta, composed in 1854, being performed as late as 1912. Knowing this, it’s a bit difficult to follow the intrigues of the plot and to listen to the impassioned arias, the pattering recitatives, and the solemn and celebratory choruses without a smile and a smirk. No matter how much holy water you sprinkle on it, the opera that’s inside this oratorio won’t be exorcised. Considering that Gioas was written in the same year as Rossini’s Semiramide, Mayr’s work sounds rather dated for its time. But having been born in 1763, Mayr was almost 30 years Rossini’s senior. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that Mayr’s style should more closely resemble Mozart’s than it does Rossini’s.
The music is delightful, often touching, and artfully crafted for the voice. It’s no wonder that Mayr was so celebrated for his operas. The four soloists are all very convincing in their roles and well matched vocally. Add to that enlivened playing from Hauk’s instrumental forces, and you have a winning performance. Unfortunately, Naxos has not provided a text or translation, but the album note gives a pretty good synopsis of the mishmash that calls itself a plot. If you can pretend while listening to Mayr’s Gioas that it’s not just an opera masquerading as a sacred oratorio, you will find much in the work and in this recording of it to enjoy.