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CD Review: Mayr's 'Saffo'

available at Amazon
J.S. Mayr, Saffo, A.L. Brown, J. Yun, Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Chorus, Concerto de Bassus, F. Hauk

(released on January 8, 2016)
Naxos 8.660367-68 | 121'24"
Charles T. Downey, CD Reviews: Johann Simon Mayr
Washington Post, May 27

Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845) composed more than 70 operas, which early music specialists are now rediscovering and recording. Born in Bavaria, Mayr composed his first attempt at opera, “Saffo ossia I riti d’Apollo Leucadio,” in 1794 for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

Mayr settled in Bergamo in 1802, studying with the music director of the city’s cathedral, whom he would eventually succeed. He remained there the rest of his life, composing a copious amount of church music but also symphonies, chamber music and operas. Mayr is perhaps best remembered for having plucked a young boy named Gaetano Donizetti from obscurity in his adopted city to become one of his students.

“Saffo’s” libretto by Antonio Simeone Sografi embroiders on the story, almost certainly invented, of the death of Sappho, the renowned poet of ancient Lesbos. In love with a hunter named Phaon, who is mourning the death of his wife, Sappho goes to Cape Leucadia to visit the temple to Leucadian Apollo. From high on the white cliffs, those accused of crimes were sometimes made to leap into the sea 200 feet below, as a way to prove themselves innocent or cleanse themselves of burning passion, if they survived.

Andrea Lauren Brown, a soprano from Wilmington, Del., brings a strong mixture of vocal colors to the demanding role. There is occasional stridency at the top of her voice, but Brown excels in slow arias such as “Soave, dolce, cara è la morte” (death is gentle, sweet, and dear) in Act II. The role of Phaon, created for castrato Girolamo Crescentini, here is performed beautifully by the Korean soprano Jaewon Yun.

The mezzo-soprano Marie Sande Papenmeyer brings a solid chest voice to the role of Apollo’s consecrated prophetess, the Pythia, at the center of an agitated prophecy scene in Act II, while soprano Katharina Ruckgaber and tenor Daniel Preis have fine supporting turns as friends of Sappho.

Franz Hauk plays the harpsichord for recitatives and conducts the instrumentalists of the Concerto de Bassus, an ensemble devoted to the resurrection of Mayr’s works, joined by the Simon Mayr Chorus and members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus.

The singular nature of this world premiere recording excuses its few shortcomings, including tenor Markus Schäfer, too often shy of the mark in terms of intonation as Sappho’s fellow poet Alcaeus of Mytilene.

In love with Sappho himself, Alcaeus tries to stop her from making the Leucadian leap but ultimately steps aside in favor of Phaon, who comes to his senses and brings Sappho back from the edge of disaster.

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