Mayr’s “Medea” Resuscitated by Rodriguez, Luisi


MAYR: Medea in Corinto / Roberto Lorenzi, baritone (Creonte); Enea Scala, tenor (Egeo); Davinia Rodriguez, soprano (Medea); Michael Spyres, tenor (Giasone); Mihaela Marcu, soprano (Creusa); Paolo Cauteruccio, countertenor (Evandro); Nozomi Kato, mezzo-soprano (Ismene); Marco Stefani, tenor (Tideo); Transylvania State Philharmonic Chorus; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Fabio Luisi, conductor / Dynamic CDS 7735/1-2 (live, Martina Franca, July-August 2015)

My first—and, for 40 years, only—contact with Johann Mayr’s Medea in Corinto was the 1969 recording issued on Vanguard Classics with Marisa Galvany as Medea, Joan Patenaude-Yarnell as Creusa, Allen Cathcart as Jason, Robert White as Aegeus and Thomas Palmer as Creon with the “Carion Concerts Orchestra and Chorus” (whoever they were!) conducted with pep, but no insight, by Newell Jenkins. What I remember most about it were two things: one, the studio engineers recessed Galvany’s voice to make her sound smaller than she did in the house, which was rather detrimental to the recording because she was the only singer with the juice to make the score come to life. Of course, being Marisa, she did so with several interpolated high notes, including a ringing high E, but you needed to crank up the volume to hear them (which you certainly didn’t have to do when you heard Galvany live); and two, everyone else except Galvany sang in an accepted bel canto style, which robbed the music of real drama. You can hear the entire recording for free (and record the streaming audio if you want) here.

For the most part Mayr’s Medea is a bel canto work, certainly not in the same league with Luigi Cherubini’s equally classic-style but tauter and more dramatic version of the Greek drama, which is why the Mayr is much less often staged and recorded. But of course, getting the right soprano for Medea is always a challenge regardless of which composer you hear, and it might be argued that neither Cherubini nor Mayr dug into the heart of the characters as well as a “real” German composer like Gluck, Beethoven or Strauss might have done. Both versions of Medea start off with lightweight, pretty music, only getting more dramatic (and interesting) once Medea enters. To a certain extent this makes sense, but to my mind Cherubini worked the antagonism between Medea and Jason better than Mayr did.

Comparing this new performance by Luisi to the Jenkins recording, one senses differences in both pacing and mood. Luisi takes the opening scene faster than Jenkins, but with a less bright sound and less jaunty rhythms. Being a live performance, we have some problems: our Creusa, Mihaela Marcu, is wobbly and infirm in her opening arioso with chorus, so much so that she goes flat much of the time (happily, she warms up by track 5). On the other hand our Creonte, Roberto Lorenzi, has a fine, somewhat dark baritone voice, and is warmed up from his first entrance. So too are the two principals, Rodriguez and Spyres, and by and large these are the three most important roles in this drama. Moreover, this live performance has a better theatrical “feel” to it than the Galvany recording. The characters all come to life here rather than just singing well. And happily, Rodriguez has an excellent Medea voice: rich and dark, with a certain amount of heft, yet also with the flexibility and technique to negotiate those tricky coloratura passages that Mayr wrote into the score. (As I said, this is more of a bel canto Medea than Chereubini’s.) in Spyres’ hands, Jason comes across as a hero who can swash a few buckles as well as toss off high-lying florid phrases with the best of them—and again, it is Luisi’s steady hand in the podium that contributes to this greater sense of drama in the music.

According to what I’ve read, Mayr already found the opera uncomfortably long and cumbersome in its initial French edition, paring down some of the lengthy orchestrally-accompanied recitatives. When he later brought the opera to La Scala a decade later (1823), further scenes were cut, specifically Scenes 4, 6, 9 and 11 in Act 1 and Scenes 3, 5, 7, 8 and 13-14 in Act 2 (these cuts were documented and kept in the Milan Conservatory). This has the effect of making Mayr’s somewhat lopsided and long-winded opera tauter and more cogently dramatic. They are smart cuts, omitting roughly a half hour’s worth of music in an opera that, at 160 minutes, is already a bit too long.

As a sidelight, I’ve also heard extended excerpts from an Opera Rara recording with soprano Jane Eaglen and tenor Bruce Ford, conducted by David Parry. This is pretty much a limp noodle, not only compared to this new Luisi reading but even to the Newell Jenkins recording, and is therefore not recommended despite the often fine singing. It is, however, a bit late for Ford, whose high notes sound a mite pinched, and Eaglen sings this bel canto-dramatic role with surprising fluency but problematic vocal control and pitch, i.e. her first high A in the aria “Sommi dei, che i giuramenti.” In short, Eaglen just makes it through the music, giving some drama to the role, whereas Rodriguez inhabits it. Alastair Miles’ Creonte is well characterized, but he’s in somewhat steel-wool voice. Parry conducts as if it were an early Mozart symphony, which isn’t good enough for any opera with the name of Medea in the title. Just listen to the slack pacing of the long Medea-Jason duet in Act 1 to see what I mean. But the Opera Rara is complete, the missing scenes given as appendices.

From what I can tell from the new recording—and the orchestra is not quite clear enough for me to be certain of this—it sounds as if Luisi is using appropriately reduced forces but allows the strings to use a light, fast vibrato rather than straight tone (certainly, I hear a fast, tight vibrato in the solo violin accompanying Medea’s first aria). Interestingly, Luisi is able to focus the orchestral sound to a pointed “bite” when playing sharply attacked notes behind the singers, which also helps move the drama forward. If Rodriguez is less technically spectacular than Galvany, she is more poignant and a finer actress, much more into the character. I wonder if she has sung the Cherubini Medea as well. As a matter of fact, Rodriguez actually makes you feel sorry for Medea, despite what she does to her children later in the opera. Nonetheless, Rodriguez’ odd, almost alien-sounding voice marks her as someone apart from the other characters in the opera, certainly apart from the other women. She has a certain nasal quality that extends down into the middle of the voice, but interestingly enough it is not detrimental to the attractiveness of her sound. One might almost call it her “Callas quality” (yes, Virginia, Maria Callas often sang in a nasal manner, too).

Compared with many other Mayr operas, Medea is actually more dramatically scored despite the inevitable comparisons with Rossini. For one thing, he tends to avoid coloratura for its own sake: when used, it always has a dramatic purpose and is not really overdone (which is why I’m not particularly fond of Galvany’s extra interpolated high notes, which tend to detract from the drama). For another, the orchestrally accompanied recitatives, particularly when sung by Rodriguez with or without Spyres or others, are given a wide variety of tone color and dramatic emphasis by the soprano. Indeed, the more often you listen to her performance the more impressed you become. She is a vocal actress with a superb voice, not a superb voice with nothing behind it. She and Luisi combine to produce a varied and fascinating performance, lifting the notes off the page and making them mean something dramatically. I became so completely wrapped up in her performance, in fact, that I almost forgot she was impersonating Medea. She almost sounded like the character herself: imperious, emotionally hurt, pleading and defiant in turn. She was so good, in fact, that I almost forgot the music itself.

Ah, but the music is there, and in Luisi’s skilled hands it has a wonderful sense of ebb and flow that de-emphasizes its Italianate bounciness. Not erase it, just de-emphasize it, and ofttimes that is enough. I know dozens of opera listeners who just adore this bel canto stuff and think it’s the bee’s knees, but I was never that big on it except when composers used coloratura runs and such in a dramatic way—and this normally applies more to Handel, Gluck and Mozart than to Mayr, Rossini and Donizetti. Mayr apparently never met a dissonance he liked, even in passing, which undermines somewhat the cogent drama of the piece, but this cast and conductor manage to overcome this. FYI, soprano Nadja Michael on an Arthaus Musik DVD of the opera is absolutely dreadful with a wobble you could drive a truck through, but Ivor Bolton’s conducting is absolutely terrific, almost as good as Luisi’s. So too is the surprisingly excellent 1977 live performance featuring the legendary Leyla Gencer as Medea, William Johns as Jason, Gianfranco Casarini as Creon, and conductor Maruizio Arena. Arena conducts the opera at a slower pace than Luisi and the others, but gives excellent dramatic weight to the music. The problem? Terrible “live” sound, recorded in mono and with the singers often off-mike.

In brief, then, this is not a perfectly-sung performance—in that respect, the Jenkins recording is finer—but as an overall presentation of a Medea opera it is the best on the market.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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