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 most 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.
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. 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.
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 plotline, but I'm sure a full synopsis for this famous Metastasio libretto can be found on-line. Pergolesi's setting and the performance here however is so good that it shouldn't be too difficult to follow.
on 4 September 2013
This is a truly marvellous performance on all counts. An attractive, gimmick-free production with a successful innovative approach, and - contrary to common practice to-day - with deep respect for the theatrical aesthetics of the Baroque opera. The story uses the ancient Olympic Games as a background for love rivalry, improbable deceptions, narrowly averted patricide and incest, and the eventual triumph of youthful virtue over the curses of the older generation.
The athlete Megacle is competing in the Olympic games under his friend Licida's name to win the hand of Aristea, which her father King Clistene has promised to the winner. Megacle has once been rescued from bandits by Licida, the son of the King of Crete. Owing his life to his friend, Megacle now feels bound by his promise to compete as Licida and agrees to enter the games under Licida's name. Aristea is however in love with Megacle, but her father has banished him from the kingdom. Licida, once betrothed to Princess Argene of Crete, is unaware that Megacle and Aristea already love each other. Things are further complicated by the arrival Argene, and by the revelation that Licida is actually Aristea's twin brother.
The production, designs and choreography are an absolute joy. The staging of the work at the Teatro Valeria Mariconi is unusual in that the director has opted for a cruciform stage with the audience all around save for the ends of the cross which are used for entrances and exits and one for the orchestra. The costumes are a colorful mix of long frocks, tight suits, masks, blonde wigs, high necklines and lots of make-up, and cleverly gives the feeling of Italian Baroque.
There are no weak links in the cast of very fine singers who lightly ornament the repeats in their da capo arias. The orchestra Academia Montis Regalis is conducted from the harpsichord by Alessandro De Marchi and the orchestral playing is consistently at a high level. The blu-ray quality is superb and the level of detail amazing. A feast for the ear and for the eye. It is quite simply a 'must have' for opera Baroque lovers.
This production of L'Olimpiade by Pergolesi easily ranks among my favourite top ten operatic productions. One can readily imagine how Pergolesi himself would have been delighted with it. Apart from anything else, the staging is superb and just perfect for reproducing on DVD, in which genre all of the performers are visible to the viewer for virtually all of the time. We never have to wonder what so-and-so is doing out of shot of another when he/she is singing. The six silent masked participants (4 men and 2 women) were virtually never out of sight with everything they did relevant to the performance. This brilliant synchronisation is an art work in itself and a joy to watch.
The performers, who are surrounded by the audience, act on a stage with the absolute minimum of props. Best of all, the orchestra is not out of sight in a pit, but clearly visible in the background enabling the viewer to delight in seeing the fascinating period instruments including two massive lutes and a harp. This gives the home viewer the very real impression that the whole cast are saying to him/her: 'See! We're doing all this especially for you. We do hope you will enjoy it.' I certainly did. What's more, I've watched the performance three times already and doubt that I'll ever tire of it.
This is not all. It gets better. The singing is out of this world! I loved every moment of it. You couldn't fault any of the performers. Every nuance of emotion is carefully crafted into each note accompanied by the appropriate body language. The recitative is carefully crafted to bind together a wholes series of delightfully emotional songs enabling the viewer-listener to be caught up in an aura of inspiring sound and, on a few occasions, there's solo singing from a balcony. The costumes are of a nondescript nature that does not detract from either singing or action. Here we have a superb example of how minimalist staging can actually boost a performance and a reminder of how over-staging can all too often be detrimental to it.
It is indeed a blessing for opera lovers that Pergolesi has now been restored, after nearly 300 years, to his rightful place among the great operatic composers. It's not that long ago that his name would not have been found in books purporting to cover all the great composers. Even now, in some books ostensibly about the history of opera, he is barely mentioned. Considering he died soon after his twenty sixth birthday we can only guess what he might have produced had he lived even as long as Mozart who died in his thirty sixth year. Although opera has developed considerably since the time of Pergolesi we can, nevertheless, experience in his works the immense potential enveloped within this genre along with a wealth of variety.
I wouldn't single out any of the performers in this work as being especially good; they all performed equally well to the highest standards and I think they can all be very proud of themselves. What is so truly inspiring about it all is that, in bringing us face to face with brutal reality, L'Olimpiade also shows us how it can be overcome and beneficially recycled. We have here a work epitomising how all of us can overcome distress and turn life into something truly worthwhile. Life is not there to control us; it's there for us to control it for the good of all. Death, which achieves nothing, is itself all too easy to achieve. Reconciliation can happen only in life, in which every moment is precious and Pergolesi's L'Olympiade is packed full of precious moments.