Notes and Editorial Reviews
George Petrou, cond; Anna Maria Panzarella
; Elena Belfiore
; Jeremy Ovenden
; Elvira Hasanagi?
; Ines Reinhardt
; Nam Won Huh
; Marc Megele
; Marko Cilic
; Prague P Men’s Ch; Munich RO
OEHMS OC 954 (2 CDs: 137:08)
“Well, Mozart’s been dead five years; who’s gonna know?” That is, I presume, roughly how Johannes (later Giovanni) Simone Mayr thought as he dashed off the overture to his second opera in 1796. Two minutes in to
comes such a direct copy of a development section of the overture to
that it can only have been a conscious decision. According to the booklet, he
Mozart and Beethoven. Is that what you call it? Mayr, born in Bavaria in 1763, is seen, rightly in my view, as a kind of bridge between Viennese Classicism and Italian bel-canto periods. Initially a law student, he was a late starter as a composer, although he was astonishingly prolific, writing 70 operas in the space of 30 years. Now he’s remembered for
Medea in Corinto
(1813); his other initially successful works have fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by his pupils, like Donizetti. He was supported by both Austrian and Italian patrons, and his style seems to straddle both countries, although after his Bergamo placement in 1802, his later works really are of an Italian tradition. Recorded here in its revised and expanded 1799 two-act version,
is, by contrast, an early pre-Bergamo work that looks back to his near contemporaries Mozart, Gluck, and Haydn, rather than paving the way for Rossini and Bellini. Its theme of liberation and true love triumphing over tyranny marks it out as a revolution opera, like
Napoleon loved it.
It often reminds me dramatically and musically of Mozart’s
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
. Along with that work’s very formal Classicism, there are similar twists of orchestration and dances to signify the exoticism of its setting. Instead of in Turkey,
takes place on the Polish-Tatar border in the 17th century. Lodoiska is held captive by the tyrannical but lovestruck Baron Boleslao in his castle. Her lover from home, Lovinski (written for mezzo soprano), comes to the rescue but is arrested, and whereas Mozart’s Pasha Selim discovers compassion, it here takes a sudden intervention from Tatar prince Giskano to save the lovers from execution, and to have Baron Boleslao arrested.
Although there is nothing wrong with the plot itself, it is limply told. Assigned to lyric tenor, our villain, Boleslao, becomes a curiously reflective, lovelorn chump with his many poised, flowing arias, so that any anger and threats of murder that do later occur come across as the queeniest of hissy fits. It is not that Mayr cannot write dramatically (the thrilling musical scene change during the storming of the baron’s castle would make Weber proud), but here he has yet to develop from a very stop-start Classical model. There’s none of the narrative sophistication of
, for instance, and ultimately there are just too many numbers, all expressing a character’s feelings well, but not moving things forward, despite the help of the rousing choruses. There are, however, many beautiful passages here, not all stolen, and if Mayr, at this early stage is not the most original tunesmith, I do admire his unusual instrumentation. The second act, especially, has many lovely touches: a duet for both of Lodoska’s suitors, accompanied most fetchingly by pizzicato strings, horn and bassoon; or the solo violin and horn lines, weaving in and out of final duet of the captured lovers. When things finally get moving, Mayr can write a decent finale (albeit with melodic hangovers of the act I finale of
Cosi fan tutte
!). It is all very pleasant to listen to, but this immature Mayr is rather hemmed in by Classical values. He does his utmost, but I think there will be many listeners who, like me, will catch themselves humming a superior tune by Mozart under their breath.
Still, if I am rather ambivalent about the piece, I have no qualms about the performance. I have rarely been so taken with a cast of newcomers. In the title role, Anna Maria Panzarella’s lithe, supple soprano is a delight. Equally girlish and pure in tone is Elvira Hasanagic’s Resiska. As the “baddie,” we have Jeremy Ovenden, a name that is starting to crop up everywhere, and I can see why; he is a Mozart tenor from the golden age—lyrical, precise, but (so rare to find now) lively and text-aware, papering over any dramatic limitations of the role. He would also be a superb David in
. As Lovinski, Elena Belfiore’s mezzo gets a little hooty, but she, too, relishes the text of this trouser role. Bringing it all together is George Petrou, who gets superb, lively playing from his Munich forces, as well as accompanying brilliantly on fortepiano. Tempos are spot-on, and in the many obbligato woodwind lines, there is astonishingly beautiful solo playing from various members. I would love to hear this whole team do a Mozart cycle.
All this has been well recorded, closely miked, but remarkably free of “live” sounds, other than the odd page turn. The notes are good, although there is no mention of Mozartian theft. Annoyingly, Oehms gives us the text in German, but not the Italian to follow it from, which is utterly unhelpful and ridiculous, given that this appears to be the first recording of the work. There is not even a proper synopsis. In fact, Oehms (better known for more standard repertoire) really is the wrong label for this, as an outfit like Opera Rara, which has already got a fair number of Mayr works under its belt, might have put this amiable but, let’s face it, derivative oddity into its proper academic context. Rarity collectors will be happy, but for everyone else, keep an eye out for these singers, maybe in another 18th-century work like, I don’t know,
, for instance.
FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield