Vivaldi, Antonio


OlimpiadeAntonio 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

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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.

FarnaceAntonio Vivaldi - Farnace

Opéra National du Rhin, 2012 | George Petrou, Lucinda Childs, Max Emanuel Cencic, Mary Ellen Nesi, Ruxandra Donose, Carol Garcia, Vivica Genaux, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Juan Sancho | Strasbourg, France, 18 May 2012

Originally created in 1729 for the Teatro Sant’ Angelo in Venice, Farnace was subjected to revisions by Vivaldi in 1738 for a new production in Ferrare, the composer adapting the airs and recitative for the tessitura for the Ferrare singers, but also seeking to rework the opera in the Neapolitan ‘galant style’. The performances were however cancelled - for reasons unknown - and Vivaldi left the new version of the work unfinished after revising only the first two of the opera’s three acts. Fascinated by Vivaldi’s work on the Ferrare version, one of the last pieces of work written by the composer, and considering it worth reviving and preserving, George Petrou, along with Frédéric Delaméa and Diego Fasolis, undertook the task of continuing the revisions made by Vivaldi through to the third act, and the revised Farnace was given its first ever complete live performance (it was recorded in 2010) by the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg on 18th May 2012, premiered some 274 years after it was written by Vivaldi.

The resulting work then is perhaps not musically 100% pure Vivaldi, but as a best guess interpretation of the composer’s intentions, the work has certainly been carried out with scholarly authority and it’s probably no less “authentic” than just about any interpretation of the music, style, tempo and instrumentation for most Baroque opera seria works of this period. If the first two acts were to ever be reconstructed and performed, it was however essential to either rewrite the third act or simply play the opera in its incomplete state. Simply grafting the original third act from the Venice Farnace onto the revised Ferrare version wouldn’t have worked, so small but significant modifications had to be undertaken for the sake of the singers. Directed for the stage at Strasbourg by Lucinda Childs, the validity of the new version or the power of Vivaldi’s energetic writing for the content of the opera itself was never in question, although whether the stage production managed to find an expression that was equally as successful was less certain.

Farnace

Lucinda Childs is better known for her ballet creations and choreography for the US avant-garde musicians and directors who came to prominence in the 1960s - Childs most notably being involved in the Gesamkunstwerk of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. She has however increasingly been working as an opera director in recent years, although ballet inevitably plays a part in her style, and indeed in her Farnace for the Opéra National du Rhin Childs pairs each of the singers with a “double” who dances the role while the other sings. Farnace is however not an opera-ballet and Childs recognises this, so the dancing doesn’t play as large a part in the stage direction as you might imagine, but what is used is well placed and appropriate. The rhythms of Baroque music certainly lend themselves to expression in this way, helping to bring out the emotional undercurrents and turmoil of a very heated dramatic situation where Farnace, the King of Pontus, son of Mitridate, has been defeated by the Roman army under Pompeo with the aid of Berenice, his own mother-in-law. He orders his wife Tamari to commit suicide with their young son rather than be taken by the enemy, and, driven to distraction by the events that are unfolding, and gaining an opportunity through his sister Selinda sowing discord and gaining favour among the Roman military command, he attempts to assassinate Pompeo.

Childs’ direction and the use of dancers do work to an extent in getting across the dark drama that unfolds, and combined with the stage designs of Bruno de Lavenère and some interesting choreography by Childs it does prove to be an effective way of overcoming the challenge that the rather static nature of opera seria drama often presents, finding a way of getting to the heart of the characters’ inner turmoil, albeit in a fairly conventional theatrical way that isn’t particularly inspired, but shouldn’t upset traditionalists either. If it doesn’t always find a way of bringing the work to life, Vivaldi’s furiously energetic writing is fortunately more than capable of achieving the necessary impact on its own. Perhaps not enough to sustain an audience through the somewhat gruelling two hours of the first two acts, which were combined without a break, but it helps if the singing is of a high quality and, with most of the principal cast from Diego Fasolis’s 2010 recording of the Ferrare version reprising their roles onstage here at Strasbourg and the score propelled forward by the Concerto Köln under George Petrou, that at least was achieved in no uncertain terms.

Farnace

The star attraction was undoubtedly the singing and performance of Max Emanuel Cencic, a countertenor with remarkable strength in this high register, much more forceful than you would normally expect to hear from this kind of singer, yet he loses none of the underlying lightness and lyricism that is required also. This was exactly the tone you would like to hear in the character of Farnace, considering the extreme range of emotions and development that he undergoes throughout the opera, and Cencic handled the flowing coloratura of the da capo arias impressively and expressively in this respect. Force was evident also in the casting of the four mezzo-soprano roles in the opera, the most commanding of which was undoubtedly Mary Ellen Nesi as the formidable Berenice, but Ruxandra Donose was also a strong, determined and driven Tamiri. Vivica Genaux was also notable as Gilade, and Carol Garcia fine as Selinda. The tenor roles of Auilo (Emiliano Gonzalez) and Pompeo (Juan Sancho) were also well performed.

The Opéra National du Rhin production at Strasbourg will be recorded for broadcast on France 3 television, and will be made available to international audiences via internet streaming on ARTE Live Web from 30th May 2012.