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Johann Simon Mayr: L’amor coniugale
20 Nov 2008

MAYR: L’amor coniugale

Naxos, in conjunction with SWR, has been releasing recordings from the Rossini in Wildbad Festival, which focuses not just on the titular composer but also on his contemporaries.

Johann Simon Mayr: L’amor coniugale

Zeliska/Malvino (Cinzia Rizzone), Amorveno (Francescantonio Bille), Floreska (Tatjana Charalgina), Peters (Dariusz Machej), Moroski (Giovanni Bellavia), Ardelao (Bradley Trammell). Wurttemberg Philharmonic Orchestra, Christopher Franklin (cond.)

Naxos 8.660198-99 [2CDs]

$16.99  Click to buy

From the 2004 season comes this performance of Simon Mayr’s L’amor coniugale, and it is a fascinating document in many ways — with the rather considerable caveat that the singing doesn’t rise to the inspired levels of either the score or the performance of the Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Franklin.

A woman adopts male disguise in order to enter the household of the warden of a prison, where her husband is being held. When the warden receives orders from an evil superior to execute the prisoner, the woman must take action to save her husband’s life. Mayr was not the first to use a libretto adopted from Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s 1798 play Léonore, ou L’Amour conjugal, but he did precede the opera that gained this tale a permanent place in the literature, Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The booklet essay explains that a trendy interest in all things Polish at the time convinced Mayr to set the story there, and the political subtext was ditched in favor of a conventional melodramatic twist. In this version, Moroski, the equivalent of Beethoven’s Pizarro, puts away Zeliska’s husband Amorveno (Leonore and Florestan) out of unrequited love for her.

While as a composer Mayr certainly doesn’t command the originality and power of Beethoven, his score possesses drama where needed and great charm elsewhere. The opening sinfonia plays like a lost movement from a Schubert symphony (Schubert also having been an admirer of Rossini). Although his melodies don’t have that inspiration which plants a tune, once heard, forever into one’s head, Mayr had uncommon gifts as an orchestrator. He especially favors individual wind instruments to wind their way around the vocal lines in arias.

The most fascinating juxtaposition between Mayr’s creation and Beethoven’s comes halfway through the one-act work, when the scene changes to the cell where Amorveno languishes. As Beethoven would for Florestan in the dungeon, Mayr begins with a scene-setting instrumental prelude of dark, minor-keyed textures, and Amorveno’s musings also move from despair to a burst of manic elation at the imagined sight of his wife. Is Beethoven’s creation the greater work? Absolutely, but Mayr’s deserves a listen as well.

The impact of this recording would probably be even greater with different lead singers. Both the Zeliska (Cinzia Rizzone) and Amorveno (Francescantonio Bille) have modestly appealing voices with restricted ranges. When their duet reaches ecstatic heights, the two singers make some truly uncomfortable sounds together. As Peters the jailer and Moroski, Dariusz Machej and Giovanni Bellavia make more creditable contributions.

Translated from the German by Neil Coleman into occasionally awkward English, Thomas Lindner’s booklet essay provides ample information on Mayr and the opera. Break out the magnifying glass, however, if one doesn’t want a headache provoked by Naxos’s typically tiny type. The synopsis is not tied to the track listing by numbers, unfortunately, and Naxos only offers an Italian libretto online.

Better vocal performances would have made this a very highly recommended set. As it is, anyone at all curious about a predecessor of Fidelio, or a fan of Rossini-era music, should definitely take a listen.

Chris Mullins

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