Franz Hauk conducts Johann Simon Mayr’s Saffo

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COMPOSERS: Johann Simon Mayr
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Mayr
WORKS: Saffo
PERFORMER: Andrea Lauren Brown, Jaewon Yun, Markus Schäfer, Katharina Ruckgaber; Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus; Simon Mayr Chorus; Concerto de Bassus/Franz Hauk
CATALOGUE NO: Naxos 8.660367-68

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Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845) was a vastly prolific composer. German-born, resident in Italy for most of his life, admired pedagogue based in later years in Bergamo, he is best remembered today as Donizetti’s much-loved teacher. Among his 600-odd compositions are 70 operas, a handful of which have been recorded. The 1960s revival of Medea in Corinto (Naples, 1813), most celebrated of his stage works during his lifetime, led the way.

Now rediscovery is fruitfully continued by this Naxos Saffo (made in tandem with a 2014 concert performance in the German city of Neuburg): it’s Mayr’s first opera, written for Venice (1794), and revealed here as grandly laid out and filled with beautifully limpid, euphonious vocal and instrumental invention. A common historical placing of Mayr is as the link between Mozart (whom he revered) and Rossini (whose celebrity came to supplant his own). But in this late-period opera seria other significant influences are evident – notably Haydn and, strongly in the temple scenes of Act II, Gluck.

A rider: on this evidence Saffo comes across as largely undramatic. This is intrinsic to Sografi’s dull libretto; the lovelorn poetess Sapho praying for relief at the temple of Delos makes a very unarresting heroine. But the lack is exacerbated by this unvaryingly bland, though musicianly and carefully prepared, reading under the Mayr enthusiast Franz Hauk. The three leading sopranos, none less than adequate, all sound too much alike; Italian delivery is stilted, and the backward recording of the chorus devalues its important role in the unfolding.

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Max Loppert