Obscure, Yet Sensational: Simon Mayr's 'Medea in Corinto'

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For every classical composer who achieves lasting fame, there are plenty of others who simply fall into obscurity. Often, there's a solid reason for that: The lesser known musicians wrote less interesting music. But in the case of Simon Mayr, he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mayr was a German composer, born in a small town in Bavaria, in 1763. He got his early musical training from his father, who was a church organist. At university, Mayr studied theology and law, but his first love was still music, and in the 1780s a patron helped Mayr move to Bergamo, in Italy, to study.

At first, he had trouble finding instruction in music, and was largely self-taught. Later, after becoming successful, Mayr established a sort of private academy, teaching music to underprivileged children. One of his pupils was Gaetano Donizetti, who gave Mayr considerable credit for his own success, and later wrote a cantata to celebrate Mayr's 78th birthday.

Once Mayr had moved to Italy, he pretty much stayed there for the rest of his career, and that seemed a sound decision. During early decades of the 19th century, he may well been Italy's most successful opera composer. The drama featured here, Mayr's Medea in Corinto, was premiered at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. At the time, the San Carlo was among Italy's most prestigious theaters, ranking right with La Scala, in Milan -- and Mayr's Medea was an enormous hit.

Yet, despite all his success, Mayr never seemed anxious to move in Italy's highest artistic circles. His operas were performed in Parma, Florence, Naples and Milan, and in other cities all over the country, as well as in Vienna. But Mayr himself remained loyal to the local musical community in Bergamo. He died there at the age of 82, in 1845, and we seldom hear his music today.

Viewed objectively, Mayr's operas might seem to deserve more attention. At their best, as in Medea in Corinto, their music is dynamic, highly expressive, and original. Mayr has been credited with introducing German harmonies and orchestral techniques into Italian opera, and he incorporated other national styles as needed, at times resulting in music that's genuinely innovative.

Mayr's Medea is a fine example of that stylistic flexibility. When the opera was launched in Napes, in 1813, French opera was in fashion. As a result, the score's recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra, rather than sung with keyboard continuo, in the Italian style. Mayr also joined many of arias, ensembles and recitatives with smooth transitions. That, together with the continuous orchestral accompaniment, gives the opera a musical flow that anticipates Rossini, and even Verdi.

Still, if Mayr's reputation has slipped since his death, it may not be all that surprising -- and it may have less to do with the quality of his work, than with the specific time he occupied in musical history. Just as his operas might have started developing a lasting reputation, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini arrived on the scene, and not long after that, Verdi himself. Mayr maintained a high standard throughout his long, working life -- but that's pretty tough competition.

And if Mayr had stayed at home in Germany? Well, he might well have faced the same problem before his career even got off the ground. As Mayr came of musical age, in the late 1700s, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven were all on the scene.

So, the production we're featuring this week is, genuinely, a rare treat. Mayr's exciting and often deeply moving Medea in Corinto comes to us in a first-rate production from the Valle d'Itria Festival in Martina Franca, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. It's a drama that presents one of classic Greek mythology's most notorious characters in a distinctly sympathetic light -- right up until she commits the stupefying crime of murdering her own children. Soprano Davinia Rodriquez stars in the title role, alongside tenors Michael Spyes and Enea Scala, in a performance led by conductor Fabio Luisi.




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