It is the unenviable fate of any composer who was active in the 1770s to be compared to Mozart. In the case of Josef Mysliveček (1737-81) this is a double certainty as he was a friend of Mozart: the two met in Bologna in 1770 and several times afterwards, and Mozart made fond mentions of the older composer in correspondence – though alas most memorably to describe the unfortunate condition of his face following treatment for the syphilis inevitable from his lifestyle.
It is mainly Mysliveček’s instrumental works that have survived into modern times, and from these he usually emerges from comparison well. His vocal music is less familiar: the oratorio Abramo ed Isacco has been recorded a few times (but then it was once thought to be by Mozart) and the opera Bellerofonte made a solitary appearance on CD in the early 1990s. This recording of Medonte, the 26th of his 27 opere serie, long forgotten since inexplicably bombing at its premiere in Rome in 1780, is therefore still in pioneer territory.
Recorded live in concert in Leverkusen in 2010, it shows Mysliveček to be a composer of strength and energy, a drawer of wide-spanned but shapely and grateful vocal lines whose resemblance to Mozart’s cannot be ignored. True, he does not approach the poignancy and depth of Mozart – the virtuoso vigour of his arias is better suited to expressions of courage, anger and defiance than subtler emotions – but he has the same warmth and buoyancy and the same ability to thrill with sheer vocal allure.
All of which makes Medonte an enjoyable listen, in spite of a weak plot not worth outlining here. The performance has verve, and though it has no big names the cast is well up to its task, even if some of the ladies are hard to tell apart at times. My favourite was Susanne Bernhard, rich and clear as leading man Arsace. Thomas Michael Allen as Medonte is hardly your honeyed Mozartian tenor, but then he is the petulant bad guy here; and while Juanita Lascarro is impressive as heroine Selene, the role itself would have benefited from a lighter and more vulnerable-sounding voice. The period-instrument orchestra are vividly led by Classical specialist Werner Ehrhardt. The live recording comes with the odd footfall, page-turn and audible edit, but certainly not enough to spoil things.