Wednesday 20 March 2013

Pergolesi - L'Olimpiade

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - L'Olimpiade

Teatro Valeria Moriconi, Jesi, 2011

Alessandro de Marchi, Italo Nunziata, Raúl Giménez, Lyubov Petrova, Yetzabel Arias Fernández, Jennifer Rivera, Sofia Soloviy, Antonio Lozano, Milena Storti

Arthaus Musik

Despite it having one of the most convoluted plots of any opera, Pietro Metastasio's L'Olimpiade was also one of the most popular texts for Baroque composers.  Originally set to music by Antonio Caldara in 1733, it was followed by Vivaldi's version in 1734 and Pergolesi's in 1735, but the libretto has also been set around 60 times by composers such as Hasse, Galuppi, Jommelli, Cimarosa and Piccinni.  Thanks to the Fondazione Pergolesi-Spontini's initiative to revive and release recorded performances of all the composer's operas in new critical editions, we finally have the opportunity to see Pergolesi's version of this immense work and it is something of a revelation.  Not only is it one of Pergolesi's most beautiful works with perhaps the finest musical and singing performances we've seen yet from Jesi, but it also turns out to be one of the best settings of L'Olimpiade that exists.

The plot of L'Olimpiade has a fairly substantial backstory even before the opera starts.  Inevitably, it involves lovers who have been parted through the whims of a King, and in this case much of the romantic complications come about through King Clisthenes promising his daughter Aristea to the winner of the Olympic Games that are being staged in Elis.  It's a prize that Lycidas, the son of the King of Crete is keen to win, and to ensure he does he has employed the services of his best friend Megacles to enter in his name.  Megacles is happy to help the friend who once saved his life, but he is unaware that the prize he is going to win for Lycidas is the woman he was once in love with until he was banished from Cleisthenes' kingdom.

That's the simple outline, but there are considerably more obstacles in L'Olimpiade that challenge the protagonists, there are secret identities that are revealed by the end and old prophesies that come to pass before everything is resolved.  As complicated as the melodrama might be, it's the richness of these situations that would inspire some of the greatest Baroque composers of the age, and when you listen to what Pergolesi does with those diverse expressions of deeply felt and highly charged emotions, you can see why Metastasio's libretto was such an important opera book.

All of Pergolesi's works released on Blu-ray so far have been given very strong productions with superb performances on period instruments by the very finest experts in this genre, but L'Olimpiade surpasses them all.  To a large extent that's down to Pergolesi's distinctive and sparklingly expressive account of the work, where even the most tragic of circumstances and bitterness of sentiments have an achingly beautiful melancholic quality, but it's brought out exceptionally well by conductor Allesandro de Marchi and the musicians of the Academia Montis Regalis.  The crystalline clarity and warmth of expression, with even the continuo sounding beautifully melodic, comes across particularly well in the HD sound recording here.

More than anything else however it's the singing that really conveys the true sentiments and strengths of this particular work.  Jesi's preference for choosing female sopranos instead of male countertenors is certainly justified by the quality of the performances here of Sofia Soloviy as Megacles and Jennifer Rivera as Lycida.  I don't know if one or both were castrato roles or whether they are trouser roles, but the tone, range and delivery of the singing could hardly be faulted by the excellent casting here.  Soloviy in particular is just astonishing as Megacles, a role that not only has challenging tessitura and ornamentation but it is also particularly demanding and crucial for the expression and characterisation of the human sentiments that lie at the heart of the work.  Sofia Soloviy gives a truly revelatory performance here in her singing of some of Pergolesi's most ravishingly beautiful and sophisticated music.

Jesi's strength in all the previous DVD/Blu-ray releases however has been in the consistently high quality of young singers in all the roles, and L'Olimpiade is no exception.  All up-and-coming talents, young, fresh and free of mannerisms, every member of the cast demonstrate total commitment to the roles, singing with a wonderful clarity of tone and diction.  Aristea and Argene are just as vital to the whole balance of the drama in L'Olimpiade and they are sung marvellously by Lyubov Petrova as Aristea and, in particular, by Yetzabel Arias Fernández as Argene.  It's a largely female cast again then, but the variety of tone and timbre of the voices is well considered and balanced.

The staging of the work at the Teatro Valeria Moriconi in Jesi is unusual in that it's performed in the round, on a very small centre stage that has platforms leading to it in the shape of a cross.  There's evidently little room then for decorative props or backdrops, so it's to the credit of Italo Nunziata's direction and the intensity that is drawn from the performances that you never feel less than totally involved in the drama.  Masked figures and dancers manoeuvre characters around this small space, holding up mirrors and barred walls, providing all that is needed to keep the dramatic expression meaningful and without ever getting into heavy symbolism.  What little opening up there is, using balconies for scenes and even for extending out the orchestra, is also most effective and scenically impressive.

The quality of the Blu-ray release is also simply amazing.  The High Resolution image and the sound mixing are breathtaking good, the audio tracks in particular revealing all the qualities of Pergolesi's musical score and the precision playing of the orchestra.  It's also very well filmed by Tiziano Mancini.  This is a challenging production to film, on an unconventional stage in a small theatre with the audience visible all around.  The audience can be a bit distracting, waving fans and reading programmes throughout the whole performance, but the actual performance is well captured and comes across with real dramatic intensity.  We are fortunate to have this magnificent performance recorded and made more widely available, as this brilliant and rare work from one of the greatest composers of the Baroque age really deserves to reach a much larger audience.

The Blu-ray disc from Arthaus Musik is region-free, the audio tracks are the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.  The only extra features on the disc are trailers for the other Arthaus Pergolesi titles.  The booklet contains an essay on the work which only has a brief outline of the synopsis.  A full synopsis for this famous Metastasio libretto should be available on-line, but Pergolesi's setting and the performance here is so good that it shouldn't be too difficult to follow.