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

recently posted on, 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

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
. 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

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

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.)
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

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, Dvo?ák’s Jeûibaba (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
and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P.
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
Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart
Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the
second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book).


image_description=Giovanni Simone Mayr: Telemaco nell’Isola di Calipso
product_title=Giovanni Simone Mayr: Telemaco nell’Isola di Calipso
product_by=Siri Karoline Thornhill (Telemaco); Andrea Lauren Brown (Calipso), Jaewon Yun (Eucari), Markus Sch‰fer (Mentore), Katharina Ruckgaber (priest of Venus), Niklas Mallmann (priest of Bacchus). Concerto de Bassus, Simon Mayr Chorus, and Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus, conducted by Franz Hauk
product_id=Naxos 8.660388-89 [2CDs]