OlimpiadeGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - L’Olimpiade

Teatro Valeria Moriconi, Jesi, 2011 | Alessandro de Marchi, Italo Nunziata, Raul Giménez, Lyubov Petrova, Yetzabel Arias Fernández, Jennifer Rivera, Sofia Soloviy, Antonio Lozano, Milena Storti | Arthaus

Despite it having one of the most convoluted plots of any opera, Pietro Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade was one of the most popular texts for Baroque composers. Originally set to music by Antonio Caldara in 1733, it was notably 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 s 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.

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


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.