01 Oct 2017

Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

No sooner had I drafted my review of Simon Mayr’s Medea in Corinto,

recently posted on OperaToday.com, than the world-premiere recording of Mayr’s Telemaco nell’Isola di Calipso reached me, an opera from 16 years earlier, when Mayr was 34 years old. Franz Hauk, who is a conductor (and organist) in Munich, has made numerous recordings of Mayr operas, oratorios, and liturgical works for Naxos, and many of them have been praised by reviewers.

Telemaco (I abbreviate the title as the jewel-case does) is a three-act work first performed in 1797 at the famous La Fenice theater in Venice. It is freely based on a didactic French novel (1699) by François Fénelon that was intended as a sequel to Homer’s The Odyssey. Numerous other creative works, in the intervening century before Mayr came along, had been inspired by Fénelon’s novel (e.g., operas by Gluck and by Berlioz’s teacher Lesueur; also several famous oil paintings).

In Mayr’s opera, Telemaco (i.e., Telemachus, Ulysses’s son, now grown up), his tutor (unnamed: simply the “Mentore”—“mentor”), and his other male companions are shipwrecked on the island of the enchanting nymph Calipso (Calypso), whom his father Ulysses had once loved and abandoned. Calipso is still enraged at this betrayal by a mere mortal and has vowed to kill any outsider who arrives at her island. Instead, she finds herself attracted to Telemaco. He, however, is drawn to the innocent Euchari (Eucharis). Finally, Telemaco is persuaded by the Mentore to flee this island of entrapment, even though he is thereby abandoning Euchari, whom the vindictive Calipso has already threatened to kill. When Telemaco and the Mentore reach a cliff overlooking the sea, the young man suddenly hesitates, the Mentore pushes him into the water, and the Mentore then jumps in as well. The ship carrying their companions collects the two men and heads back to Greece as the curtain falls.

The story relates to a long tradition of chivalric romances (e.g., by Tasso and Ariosto) in which a young hero must free himself—or be freed by upright male comrades—from the wiles of a foreign and powerful woman. It also bears some resemblance to another myth-based opera: Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762; expanded and revised in French, 1774). But Telemaco has none of the stately grandeur that marks long stretches of that famous work. It feels instead very much like a series of conversations between people whom we all know. The closest parallel in Gluck’s Orfeo to what we often encounter in Telemaco is the quarrel between Orpheus and Euridice (halfway through Act 3), when he is leading her from Purgatory back up to earth and—for reasons that he has been forbidden to explain to her—he refuses to look at her.

The performance here keeps the conversations among the characters vivid and involving. Tempos are brisk, but they are also often adjusted for appropriate momentary effect. One number moves right into the next, with no long pauses to dissipate the tension.

The singers, all clear and light-voiced, color their voices in a variety of ways, allowing us to distinguish the characters from each other and to recognize the feelings that each is experiencing at the moment. Even slight shifts in vocal color are important because the basic layout of voice-types for the four major roles could have been problematic, at least for a modern listener: the two female roles of Calipso and Euchari are sopranos; Telemaco, being a young male warrior, was written for a castrato (as were Mozart’s Idamante and Sesto) and is here likewise sung by a female soprano; and the Mentore is a tenor.

The most consistently firm and nuanced singing comes from Siri Karoline Thornhill. She is a rising star on the early-music scene, having sung Mozart’s Donna Anna under Sigiswald Kuijken and recorded a number of Bach cantatas. Markus Schäfer, a well-established recording artist (Don Ottavio and Ferrando, both under Kuijken; and Bach cantatas under Helmuth Rilling), brings great authority and variety to the role of the Mentore. Any moments where his voice sounds just a bit worn seem perfectly appropriate for a character who is old and wise. Andrea Lauren Brown is attentive to Calipso’s often-intense words, allowing us to ignore an occasional lack of solidity in her vocal production. Her embellishment of the melodic line at the end of Calipso’s final aria is beautifully realized and feels quite in character.

The acoustics are sometimes very resonant, giving undue emphasis to the three sopranos’ high notes. (The recording was made in a large meeting hall in a former Jesuit school in Neuburg, Bavaria.) The orchestra—a smallish but alert group—is recorded clearly and somehow free of that mildly annoying echo.

The basic style of the music is post-Mozartean (or post-Cimarosa, or post-Paisiello), with none of the anticipations of Donizetti and Verdi that will crop up in Mayr’s aforementioned Medea in Corinto. Still, numerous moments make a vivid impression. An early biographer of Mayr rightly praised two extended orchestral passages: a storm scene and a hunt, the latter with chorus. No less strong are the dances for Calipso’s nymphs, and the funeral march for the condemned Euchari (which alternates, to great dramatic effect, with a military march announcing the imminent departure of Telemaco’s soldier buddies—will he join them?). The orchestra often interacts in productive ways with the vocal parts: adding brass fanfares or a pastoral drone bass to an aria to point up the imagery in the sung words, or turning a recitative into a mini-scena before the aria proper begins.

Some passages of recitative are accompanied by a small string ensemble, with one player, or just a few, per part. (The whole recording is available in separate files on YouTube. An example of a recitative with reduced strings can be heard here; the character singing is Calipso.) The otherwise informative booklet-essay does not indicate whether this orchestrational “downshift” was specified by Mayr, but it works well, refreshing the ear and making the words easier to hear. The single most pleasant surprise for me in the whole recording was the end of a choral number for the Greek sailors in distress (“Ah, che fai!”): before the chorus has completing its singing, Telemaco suddenly begins to sing “What horror! By me will you have vengeance!”; his first note is long and high, emphasizing his determination and adding to the startling effect.

As for Calipso, Mayr’s skill at setting text makes the character a worthy member in opera’s long line of powerful, often vengeful women, from the Medeas of Cavalli (in Giasone), Charpentier, Cherubini, and Mayr himself to Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Azucena and Ulrica, Wagner’s Kundry, Dvořák’s Ježibaba (in Rusalka), and beyond. I found particularly satisfying the two trios, in which Calipso, Telemaco, and the Mentore express their different concerns in overlapping and contrasting lines. (For the trio that ends Act 1, click here. The characters heard are, in order, the Mentore, Telemaco, and finally Calipso.) In short, a fertile musicodramatic imagination is at work here, and I now understand better why generations of opera scholars (including Hauk himself, in a German-language book, 1999) have drawn attention to Mayr as a crucial figure in the development of Italian opera.

The downloadable libretto is Italian-only and not free of typos (“piagnente” should presumably be “piangente”). Fortunately, the synopsis included in the booklet is very detailed and contains track numbers to help you know where you are. In that synopsis, and also in the booklet-essay, the English translation is unidiomatic at times but never incomprehensible. The discs are slightly mislabeled: CD 1 contains not just Act 1 but also the beginning of Act 2.

Ralph P. Locke

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book).