Metastasio originally conceived L’Olimpiade for Antonio Caldara in 1733 to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Elisabeth. Despite Metastasio’s uneasy relationship with Caldara, who premiered many of his operas, L’Olimpiade was a huge success. More than 60 composers used the libretto for their own renditions including Hasse, Vivaldi (in an attack on Metastasio), and even an unfinished version by Donizetti! The story takes place in Ancient Greece at the time of the Olympic games. It concerns the amorous exploits and rivalry of two best friends, Megacle and Licida. L’Olimpiade was only trumped in popularity by Artaserse and Alessandro nell’Indie. It must be noted that for a modern audience the drama in this opera may be considered somewhat weak, tenuous and melodramatic. (The idea of Megacle being a substitute for Licida as well as all the attempted suicides in Acts two and three all seem really incredible.) It is known that Metastasio modelled the role of Megacle to the strengths and weaknesses of the castrato Salimbeni. And this accounts for the more than unusual stiffness of Megacle’s character. Other successful Megacle’s included the castrati Monticelli and Marchesi – the dazzling version by Cimarosa for Marchesi attests to this.
Baldassare Galuppi was active from the peak of Hasse and Vivaldi to the peak of Mozart. He collaborated with important artists such as Caffarelli, Conti, Mingotti and Monticelli. He was considered in his day to be the leading composer of comic Venetian opera, although he eventually garnered a reputation as a composer of serious opera and religious works. He is also credited with expanding the importance of the orchestra and Burney described his music as having “beauty, clarity, and good modulation”. Galuppi’s style can be noted for an adventurous melodic and harmonic progression combined with a fondness of a loud orchestral accompaniment in the Galant style. His coloratura though demanding is never beyond the realms of possibility, unlike a lot of music by Vivaldi or Hasse. Much of the opera can be said to be in his own voice: ‘Superbo’, ‘Tu da me dividi’, to name a few arias. However some of them reminds one of Hasse (‘Quel destrier’) or Mozart (‘Il tuo diletto’ and ‘Piu non si trovano’). Galuppi’s L’Olimpiade premiered to resounding success in Milan in 1747 and it is regarded as his most successful opera. The opera is orchestrated for oboes, flutes, horns, trumpets (reserved for the Sinfonia and Coro finale) and strings with harpsichord and theorbo continuo. As the norm, the arias are in da capo form – with the exception of ‘Se cerca’ - linked by unaccompanied recitatives. There are a few accompanied recitatives and only one duet and chorus. One cannot be sure how much recitative had been cut by Galuppi or by Marcon – but comparing it to Metastasio’s original many lines had been cut. The performing edition is by Claire Genewein and Andrea Marcon based on extant manuscripts in Milan, London and Paris.
The Sinfonia consists of three movements that are in no way connected to the action which follows. The opening formal allegro gives way to a nice pathetic movement in 3/8 time that leads into a lively in allegro in 3/8.
In Act I Megacle arrives in Sicyon to enter the Olympic Games under the name of Licida, a friend who once saved his life. Unknown to Megacle, his beloved Aristea is to be offered to the winner of the games by her father, king Clistene. Romina Basso in ‘Superbo di me stesso’ sets the tone for this performance: accurate and vibrant music thrillingly performed. She has a fantastic and distinctively androgynous voice with precise coloratura. This role was written presumably for a mezzo soprano castrato, which means that a wide range is required. Although Basso is quite happy with the mid to low end of her voice, unfortunately towards the top it tends to thin out a little. Her intonation at times can be dodgy and she tends to be behind the orchestra for much of this aria. Basso and the Licida (Franziska Gottwald) are convincing in their portrayal of young men. Despite Aminta’s misgivings about this deceit, Licida tells Aminta, who is also his uncle and tutor, that he is throwing caution to the wind as he heads to claim his prize in ‘Quel destier’. This is one my favourite arias in the work. The opening motive in triplets in the second violins musically depicts the horse rushing to its stable. And Gottwald lays into the complex coloratura and ornamentation of the da capo with abandon. Gottwald’s voice and training are formidable and there is no weakness that one can detect; to boot she is also a wonderful actress.
In the next scene Argene and Aristea lament their sad fate. (Argene, Licida’s rejected fiancée and in disguise as the shepherdess Licori, is in search of him. She is also a confidant of Aristea.) Clistene (Mark Tucker) arrives to announce the start of the games. Tucker’s tenor is put to the test in the athletic ‘Del destin’. Although a few extreme high notes are missed he brings the necessary vocal authority to the role. Aristea’s ‘Tu di saper‘ follows and it is the first cantabile aria of the opera scored for flute and strings (con sordini). The aria has some moments of vocal display and one really would have wanted something slower and less virtuosic for this aria. Ruth Rosique (Aristea) is a very beautiful woman and looks terrific in her costumes. She sings with sincerity and precision but her voice is on the slender side and one wishes her Italian were more idiomatic. Argene (Roberta Invernizzi) follows this with a sarcastic aria complaining about the lack of constancy in lovers. (Considering Metastasio’s treatment of La Romanina he was a fine one to judge!) Invernizzi’s voice is not capable of much colour, but what she does have she uses to devastating effect to convey the feelings of an outraged lover. Her part, as a seconda donna is only that in name as her role is probably more challenging than Aristea’s. ‘Piu non si trovano’, is not particularly memorable except that there is a repeating motive that reminds me of Despina’s ‘In uomini’. As a siciliano it makes a welcome break from the metre of the other arias which have been in 3 or 4 time.
In the next scene Licida reveals to Megacle the prize of the competition. Megacle is upset and asks Licida to leave him alone. In ‘Mentre dorme’ Galuppi deploys horns to the strings to create a warm and tranquil atmosphere. Gottwald sings this aria with just the right touch of love and expectation and though it is one of the gems of the score it does not match the sheer rapture and ecstasy of Pergolesi’s version. Megacle reacts to news in a scene that musically leads from unaccompanied recitative to the first accompanied recitative of the opera. When Aristea arrives unexpectedly the recitative returns to being unaccompanied. He tells her that he has entered the games and that he must leave her. (He does not tell her that he is competing under Licida’s name.) In the most beautiful number, and only duet of the opera, Megacle takes leave of a baffled Aristea. The simplicity and dignified melody of this duet must not have left an eye dry at its premiere in 1747. Rosique and Basso perform this duet to perfection, bringing Act I, lasting almost 80 minutes, to a beautiful and touching conclusion.
Act II starts with Alcandro announcing to the consternation of the two girls that Licida has won the race. Alcandro’s ‘Di piu chiara luce’ - sung to pacify and appease Aristea – though well sung is not a striking aria. In ‘Grandi e ver’ it is Aristea’s turn to console Argene. This aria is very similar in tone and Affekt to Alcandro’s ‘Di piu’ but is more pleasing. In ‘Che non mi disse’ Aristea marvels again at the inconstancy of lovers. In the original version Aminta next received an aria di tempesta ‘Siam nave’ which compares love to that of a ship in a storm at sea. However Galuppi set a different text called ‘Tigre, che sdegno ed ira’. ‘Tigre’ is a very exciting simile aria with a different Affekt to the three preceding arias. The range of this aria is rather high and taxing but Adami meets this challenge bravely. Adami has a slightly nasal quality to his sound which may not be to everyone’s taste, but otherwise he is a good singer and actor. In the next scene Clistene introduces Megacle as Licida to a surprised Aristea. In the ensuing confusion they are reluctant to speak leading to Clistene’s next aria ‘So, che fanciullo’. In it he says that love hates the company of the old and he will leave them alone. Now in addition to being a really silly text for an opera aria post Monteverdi, this aria also turns out to be the most boring moment of the work. This is quite a feat considering the high quality of music up until this point. (The out of place flute and voice cadenza in the da capo doesn’t help!)
Left alone Megacle confesses the truth to Aristea and she faints and Licida rushes to her side. In ‘Se cerca’ Megacle tells Licida that Licida should tell Aristea that Megacle left her in tears. It is an incredibly touching setting and in the slow part strongly reminds me of Mozart. Aristea wakes and in response to Licida’s advances denounces him the aria di parlante ‘Tu da me dividi’. The sound world of this aria, in my opinion, is unique to Galuppi with wonderful ideas in the orchestra to illustrate the unhinged state of Aristea’s mind with triple stops and fast triplet arpeggio figures for the violins. Although Rosique’s voice is just a step too small for this aria her impassioned acting saves the day. Argene then finds Licida and immune to his flattery has a go at him too in ‘Son qual per mar turbato’. ‘Son qual’ is a stunning aria di tempesta full of coloratura that Invernizzi delivers with reckless abandonment. (Her last note sounds dubbed.) The strings are augmented by horns - and Marcon lets them rip. Aminta and Alcandro report to Licida that Megacle has drowned himself and that Clistene has discovered his deceit. Licida’s ‘Gemo in un punto’ brings Act II, lasting just under 70 minutes, on a heightened emotion to a thrilling end.
Unfortunately Act III is not as convincingly conceived as the previous two acts. It begins very unpromisingly with the action that Megacle has been rescued by a fisherman. Megacle is accompanied by Aminta and encounters Aristea and Argene. In Alcandro’s ‘S’egli non more a lato’ he reveals that Licida tried to kill Clistene, and now awaits execution. Before Megacle goes to join Licida, Aristea reconfirms her love for him in the touching ‘Caro son tua cosi’. The director is wise to have Rosique stand still and deliver this aria centre stage with the spotlight on her. This is one of the best moments in the opera. The next scene is a coloratura display piece for Megacle. In the background Licida is brought into the temple awaiting execution – a clever touch. ‘Per momenti’ features interesting harmonic and melodic progressions that sound unique to Galuppi. The da capo’s ornamentation is delivered incredibly well. In many da capos Marcon seems fond of stopping arias mid-flight and inserting cadenzas; it works sometimes, however this aria really needs to move along and could have done without it. Also, Basso’s Intonation in the da capo is particularly off - particularly in the final chord of the cadenza. Next is Argene’s ‘Fiamma ignota’ in which she decides to sacrifice herself for Licida. This aria is not without its charms and her blending with the flute in her entrances is nothing short of breathtaking. (The cadenza in the B section is amazingly executed earning her the biggest ovation of the night.)
Aminta next gets an aria, ‘Si sprezzi il periglio’, that takes Adami beyond his limits. In addition Adami is also constantly behind the orchestra and this aria also has the worst staging in the opera. It is a real shame that Clistene’s ‘Alcandro lo confesso’ is substituted with ‘Il tuo diletto atroce’, in which Clistene expresses a strong affinity for Licida – who turns out to be his long lost son. The aria’s A sections consists of two main motives: one with dotted French rhythms which flows into a more contemplative and cantabile section. (The French rhythms in this aria indicate a hesitation and palpitation, which Clistene is unable to ignore which.) This aria is very noble and well sung. In the final scene Licida is revealed through a series of revelations as Clistene’s son. He is consequently freed to marry Argene and Megacle Aristea. The opera is brought to a quick end with the short and lively Coro. Act III lasts around 60 minutes.
After the sinfonia the curtain is raised with an initial screen between the characters on stage – maybe to indicate that we are about to enter into a dream world? Aristea is dressed in a costume dating from the 1730’s in Acts I and III and in a blood red ball gown in Act II. Argene, a princess in disguise as a shepherdess, looks like an Egyptian handmaiden in a stripper’s black wig. With the exception of Argene and Aristea (in Act II) the other singers are beautifully costumed in 18th century clothing.
The set is in panels with trees ‘engraved’ on them; it reminds me a lot of Hytner’s Xerxes for the ENO. The stage and camera directors should be lauded for their efforts not to meddle with the staging and filming of the drama. Despite the constant use of tableaux vivants in the staging, Dominique Poulange’s production is still considerably better than most. However, I must point out that the staging is seldom highly creative, and though functional is mostly static. Many of the characters spend much of their time singing their arias either kneeling of lying on the floor in Act III. But dear God rather this than some freakish Konzept! (As soprano Roberta Alexander pointed out in an interview “The "concept" is not for me, because there is no concept. It's something they have brought in themselves.”)
This performance was filmed in the Teatro Malibran in Venice in October 2006. The Gristomo - renamed after the celebrated Maria Malibran - was one of the leading theatres in 18th century and saw many famous premieres: Hasse’s Artaserse and Handel’s Agrippina to name but two.
The booklet contains interesting information and explains the various choices that were made between the extant manuscripts. The opera lasts a total of 210 minutes and is spread over 2 DVDs. It is in 16:9 ratio formatted to all regions. Sound is in Dolby Digital Linear PCM 2.0; subtitles are in Italian, French, English, Spanish and German. The tracks skip from aria to aria for those who do not want to sit through the recitatives.
As a summary I would say that the orchestra, singers and Marcon make a persuasive case for this forgotten masterpiece, performing it with thrilling precision and exuberance. In my opinion L’ Olimpiade is one of Metastastio’s weaker drammi from his mature years. The homoerotic nature of the relationship between Licida and Megacle is overt, particularly in Act III, and consequently makes their heterosexual relationships seem a bit of a farce. Also the bucolic nature of the drama is really more suitable as a cantata or a serentata. Throughout the opera the A sections receive no cadenzas unfortunately, but the B sections and the da capos are decorated and receive substantial cadenzas that serve to heighten and elaborate on the Affekt. Act I is on a consistently high musical level, however, Act II starts of rather tentatively but after Clistene’s ‘So che fanciullo’, one stunning aria after another follows. The music Galuppi wrote for Act III is mostly rubbish, with only around three memorable numbers in it. Also I do not know why, but Metastasio’s choruses are cut and the soloists sing the final Coro.
This is a must buy for any lover of baroque opera.
To purchase a copy of the DVD, please click here.
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Conductor: Andrea Marcon
Director: Dominque Poulange
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Set and Costume Designer: Francesco Zito
Light Designer: Fabio Barettin
Mark Tucker – Clistene (Tenor)
Ruth Rosique – Aristea (Soprano)
Roberta Invernizzi – Argene (Soprano)
Romina Basso – Megacle (Mezzo-Soprano)
Franziska Gottwald – Licida (Mezzo-Soprano)
Furio Zanassi - Alcandro (Baritone)
Filippo Adami – Aminta (Tenor)