Location: Garsington Opera, Wormsley and QEH, London
Event Date: June 2012
Review Date: 23rd July 2012
Reviewed By: Piers Burton-Page
Review Citation: Piers Burton-Page, review of L'Olimpiade
L'Olimpiade, Garsington Opera, Wormsley, 3-29 June 2012.
Date Accessed: 21st May 2013
L’Olimpiade ‘The Opera’, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 28 May 2012.
This being an Olympic year, London 2012 has already been monopolizing the headlines for months if not years. Operatic impresarios have in past times observed that, at a pinch, sport and music can make surprisingly comfortable bedfellows, even in the U.K. In 1994, at Opera North, there was Benedict Mason’s football opera Playing Away
; while in 2001 at English National Opera, one act of David Sawer’s From Morning to Midnight
was set in a velodrome and featured a bicycle race, fully staged.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, more than one astute Intendant has also remembered that Pietro Metastasio, Imperial court poet to the Habsburgs in Vienna from 1729, once created a libretto actually set at the (ancient) Olympic Games. Typically convoluted but ingeniously constructed, his L’Olimpiade
involves many standard 18th century ingredients: mistaken or lost identity, attempted suicide and parricide, a complex love-plot (here, quadrilateral rather than triangular), anagnorisis
(a recognition scene), and something akin to a deus ex machina
to achieve the requisite lieto fine
or happy ending.
Metastasio’s libretto for L’Olimpiade
was created, and first set to music, in 1733. The composer was Emperor Karl VI’s long-time Vizekapellmeister
, Antonio Caldara, and the first performance took place in high summer, Sunday 30 August, in the gardens of the Emperor’s summer palace in Vienna, Schloss Favorita. (This still exists, as the Theresianum, and houses a smart school and the Austrian diplomatic academy.) The new opera marked the occasion of the birthday of his wife, the Empress Elizabeth Christina.
Perhaps the al fresco
setting chimed with the lingering elements of pastoral still latent in Metastasio’s text: his Roman education had after all included strong Arcadian influences. L’Olimpiade
, though, was soon to enjoy spectacular success as a libretto when transferred indoors. Not just in Italy, but in other European countries from Spain and Portugal, right up to Scandinavia, the libretto eventually enjoyed almost 60 different musical settings in as many years. Some of this popularity, but certainly not all, can of course be attributed to local conditions, i.e. the specific talents of the available singers in a particular location, and to a craving for novelty. Although Metastasio’s libretto still divides commentators, some seeing it as the most humane of his many productions, others deterred by the formulaic dramaturgy and heavy reliance on coincidence at critical moments in the plot, it evidently exercised a powerful hold on the 18th century operatic mind.
For the 21st century operatic mind, though, the genre to which it so firmly belongs, opera seria
, which notably involves long chains of recitatives and arias, minimal use of the chorus, very few ensembles, and the principal male roles sung by castrati, has usually been hard to stomach. With few exceptions – Mozart’s Idomeneo
and La Clemeza di Tito
come to mind, though these are in fact atypical of the genre – the true home of opera seria
has felt like the museum.
Is that fair? Two revivals of L’Olimpiade
have recently provided an opportunity for reconsideration. Garsington Opera, where they have a mini-tradition of Vivaldiana, resurrected Vivaldi’s 1734 setting for the Teatro Sant’Angelo, where the composer also acted at times as impresario. Helped by a uniformly excellent cast, all of whom appeared to relish Vivaldi’s characteristic admixture of poignant lyricism and vocal virtuosity, and by brisk but never insensitive tempi from the conductor Laurence Cummings, and with some necessary flexibility induced by some variation in the repeated sections of the many da capo
arias, the musical strength of Vivaldi’s setting was never in doubt. Such show-stopping numbers as Licida’s benign sleep aria, ‘Mentre dormi,’ or Aminta’s storm tossed ‘Siam navi al onde algenti’ have more than stood the test of time. One was left free to reflect on the potentially problematic dramaturgy.
The veteran director David Freeman was evidently not entirely confident enough to leave L’Olimpiade
untouched as a purely period piece, and maybe the proximity of the London 2012 Olympics was in any case a temptation too far. On stage there were track suits in evidence, military uniform for Alcandro the King’s adviser, athletes wearing trainers, a comic race round the stage and non-singing extras doing press-ups and weight training, a medals ceremony, but fortunately no trace of that directorial last resort, mobile phones and sunglasses. Equally fortunately, the narrative line, complex at the best of times (blame Metastasio) survived intact. And there were a good few touches of the antique: bronze-coloured portrait busts, olive or laurel branches, an altar, a sacred flame. And somehow, the juxtaposition of old and new, the touches of humour lightening the weight of serietà
, did not grate but seemed to enhance the proceedings: none but the diehard purist could have taken offence. For this watcher at least, this was a model of how to confront the challenge of opera seria
A very different experience had been on offer at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall not many nights previously. The Venice Baroque Orchestra had also spotted an opportunity to resurrect not just L’Olimpiade
, but the idea of the pasticcio
. Commonplace in the 18th century – there were numerous pasticcio
versions of L’Olimpiade
in London alone, the earliest from 1742 – these ‘patchwork’ compilations featured arias lifted from several different composers’ versions of the libretto, the arias in question often being arie di baule
or ‘suitcase arias’, i.e. the favourite numbers of a particular performer transported in their luggage from city to city – and even from one opera to an entirely different one, and context be damned!
This particular pasticcio
, the brainchild of impresario Julian Fifer, made the further bold decision to include settings of all 20 of Metastasio’s original arias for L’Olimpiade
, as well as the beautiful single duet found at the end of Act 1, ‘Ne’ giorni tuoi felici’ (which became a text much favoured throughout the 18th century: there is even a concert version by Beethoven), and the choruses. 16 different composers were represented: Leopoldo Leo, Tommaso Traetta and Davide Perez appeared twice, Johann Adolf Hasse, the giant of his day, a dominant force in both Venice and Dresden, three times. Had any intervening recitatives been included, it could have made for a very long evening indeed, but they were cut in their entirety, so what we had was an almost unbroken, and thus somewhat indigestible, sequence of arias.
was a concert performance (it has now also appeared on disc, on the French naïve label: see www.naive.fr for further details) with soloists using music, seated on stage throughout, and combining where necessary to form a small chorus. The Venice Baroque Orchestra are a period-instrument band, and their crisp articulation and vigorous sonorities and clarity of texture were a real bonus. One of the fascinations of the evening was the chance to compare and contrast musical styles, from the contrapuntal sinews of the earliest settings, such as those by Caldara and Leo, to the athleticism demanded by Hasse or Galuppi, and then the shift towards a pre-Mozartian Sensibilität
in the numbers Jommelli or Cimarosa. The settings heard spanned a good half-century. Oh to see one or other of them staged! (Stop press: L’Olimpiade
in the setting by Josef Myslivecek (1778) is due for performance in Prague in 2013: it is advertised a co-production, so may well find its way westward.)
Thus the emphasis was purely and simply on song, and one could not legitimately compare the two evenings. One common feature they of course shared was the lack of castrati: authenticity can only go so far, thank goodness. Were they missed? One conclusion from both experiences of L’Olimpiade
is that the singers of today are now so well trained, so highly disciplined and so versatile, so acutely aware of idiom and style, be they counter-tenors or sopranos en travesti
, that this is no longer the problem it once was. The gender confusions that result were of course a factor in 18th century operatic performance, too, so there is a certain appropriate authenticity there. And thus it seems permissible to say that, on this evidence, opera seria
stands a better than ever chance of making a comeback.Piers Burton-Page was on the staff of BBC Radio 3 from 1971 – 2002. He produced and presented countless broadcasts of opera, and still writes and broadcasts on operatic subjects.