Antonio Vivaldi - L’Olimpiade
La Serenissima, 2012
Adrian Chandler & James Johnstone, Richard Williams, Stephen Gadd, Rachael Lloyd, Sally Bruce-Payne, Louise Poole, Marie Elliott, Mhairi Lawson, Jonathan Gunthorpe
Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012
You might think that the Olympic games would be a perfect subject for a Vivaldi sprint, but the composer’s approach to this frequently covered libretto by Metastasio actually adopts a pace more akin to a marathon - which I suppose is an appropriate description for a lengthy opera seria. Thankfully, the directors for this Buxton Opera Festival production were better able to resist the predictable sporting cliches than myself with L’Olimpiade, all the more impressive since everyone else is tying cultural events with considerably less relevance into the London 2012 celebrations.
L’Olimpiade features the usual Metastasian setting of star-crossed lovers, unable to be with the one they love - usually on the dictate of a cruel and selfish king - their lives made even more unbearable by twists of chance, circumstance and no small amount of coincidence in work that has a convoluted backstory you need to be aware of before the opera even starts. Eventually however the king is persuaded to come to his senses and in his wisdom put everything back into the natural order, joining or reuniting the distressed lovers into the arms of their loved ones. It’s the setting of the Olympic games however that puts an interesting if somewhat notional spin on proceedings in L’Olimpiade, one of the most covered Metastasio librettos.
In the Buxton production, the set is staged as if for a wedding, but it looks like a gloomy affair that no amount of coloured balloons is going to enliven. The reluctant bride-to-be is Aristea, and the reason for her despair (despair is not too strong a word to describe the fevered outpourings expressed in typically overwrought da capo arias) is that her father, Clistene, the King of Sicione, has promised her to the winner of the Olympic games. She however is in love with the super athlete Megacle, but her father has a dislike for Atheneans, and has banished him from the kingdom. In the substantial backstory prior to the opera, Megacle has however been rescued during his exile from bandits by Licida, the son of the King of Crete. Owing his life to his new friend, Megacle agrees to enter the Olympic games under Licida’s name, unaware that the prize he is competing for on behalf of his friend is his lost love.
That’s just the simple outline, but being a Pietro Metastasio libretto, there are evidently other complications, not least of which is Argene’s despair (yes, yet more despair) that the man she loves, Licida, has abandoned her (again by regal decree, since she is not of noble birth) and now has his desires set on marrying Aristea. There’s also a situation in the past where Clistene had ordered the death of his own son - Aristea’s twin brother - after a fortune-teller warned that his son would one day attempt to kill him, but, as you can imagine, the only reason for introducing this element is to ensure a nice twist at the end when the son is revealed to be alive and actually turns out to be… well, you get the picture. Nothing remotely naturalistic, just a wonderful opera seria situation for opportunities to decry one’s woes at the cruel whims of fate in long elaborate repetitive arias
Vivaldi’s approach to this once very popular libretto is not the typical energetic Vivaldian style, although those familiar fast-paced rhythms evidently have their place here, but the work - one of the composer’s later works from 1734 in the then fashionable Neapolitan style - is rather more varied in its efforts to suit the finer sentiments and the sorrow expressed throughout. The majority of those sentiments are delivered in solo arias or ariosos, with only a little chorus work, the variety being in the tempos and the fine melodies Vivaldi creates for them. There is one beautiful duet that stands out from this however, Act I’s ‘Ne’ giorni tuoi felice‘, between Megacle and Aristea, sung wonderfully here by Louise Poole in the castrato role of Megacle, and Rachel Lloyd as Aristea.
L’Olimpiade is a work that relies on the quality of the singers to give its improbable story some character and the singers here helped make that possible, Sally Bruce-Payne’s Argene and Stephen Gadd’s Clistene in particular standing out, but really, this was a concerted effort with the right range of voices to fit the roles. Richard Williams’ stage dressing was basic, but the choice of setting, notionally present-day, was perfect, the whole event looking like one of those wedding parties where everything kicks-off as old grievances are brought to light. Rare though they are, Vivaldi operas are notoriously difficult to stage and this set the tone perfectly and in a much more appropriate location than some sports stadium. With La Serenissima’s Adrian Chandler on violin and James Johnstone on harpsichord driving those Vivaldi rhythms on period instruments, the whole thing came together wonderfully, showing that there’s life in these old works yet.