Born near Ingolstadt in Bavaria, Simon Mayr spent the greater part of his career in Bergamo, a flourishing cultural and economic centre in the early nineteenth century. An important figure in the promotion of Viennese classicism in Italy, he combined, in his own style, the legacy of Vienna with the dramatic and melodic genius of Italy, and held a dominant position in Italian opera before the emergence of Rossini. His oratorio David in spelunca Engaddi (David in the Cave of Engedi), with a Latin text, was written in 1795 for the Ospedale dei Mendicanti in Venice, one of the four great charitable institutions there, known for the musical achievements of its members. The oratorio deals with the conflict between David and Saul, and the refusal of David to harm the Lord’s anointed, in spite of the opportunity offered him.
Mayr had established himself as a highly successful composer by the beginning of the 19th century. Medea in Corinto is one of his best-known operas, based on a libretto by Felice Romani. For decades after its 1813 première at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, it provided one of the speciality roles for Isabella Colbran and Giuditta Pasta. In this recording, Italian conductor Fabio Luisi gives an intense reading of Mayr’s music and masterfully underlines its deep psychological dimensions, enhancing the drama that unfolds on stage. Luisi, a Grammy Award-winning artist, is also principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and general music director of the Zurich Opera. Michael Spyres and Enea Scala, take the important roles of Jason and Aegeus. The role of Medea is entrusted to the Spanish soprano Davinia Rodriguez, who effortlessly delivers Act I’s demanding cavatina with obbligato violin, usually omitted in most productions.
The Florentine Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1682-1732) was the finest theorbo player in early 18th-century Europe, and spent almost his entire career at the Habsburg court in Vienna. He composed sacred and secular vocal works special enough to warrant the attention of both Bach and Handel. Conti's oratorio David, a setting of a dramatic libretto by Apostolo Zeno, was first performed at Vienna in March 1724. The cast of singers included the tenor Francesco Borosini, soon afterwards a principal cast member for Handel in Tamerlano and Rodelinda (Conti's writing for Borosini descends to a low G, hence the decision here to cast baritone Furio Zanasi as Saul). Alan Curtis speculates that Borosini might have shown Conti's score to Handel because Conti's use of the theorbo to portray David playing the harp to soothe the insanely jealous Saul is neatly reflected in Handel's use of solo harp in his oratorio Saul (1738). Conti's difficult obbligato theorbo part in David's 'Quanto mirabile' is entrusted to the safe hands of Jakob Lindberg; the vocal part is sung by Marijana Mijanovic´, whose tuning and phrasing are better here than in her Handel recordings. Furio Zanasi's top register is stretched a notch too much for comfort at times but this never gets in the way of a convincing performance. Simone Kermes is beautifully emotive as Micol, Birgit Christensen's sparkling soprano is impressive, and Sonia Prina sings with exemplary sense of proportion and melodic line.