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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)
L'Olimpiade - Melodramma in 3 acts
Raúl Giménez - Clistene; Lyubov Petrova - Aristea; Yetzabel Arias Fernández - Argene; Jennifer Rivera - Licinda; Sofia Soloviy - Megacle; Antonio Lozano - Aminta; Milena Storti - Alcandro
Academia Montis Regalis/Alessandro De Marchi
rec. Teatro Valeria Moriconi, Jesi, Italy 2011
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i
Region Worldwide
Subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean
Reviewed in surround sound.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108064 [170:00]

L'Olimpiade is to a libretto written by Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, better known as Metastasio. Metastasio lived a long life from 1698 to 1782. His importance as a writer of opera seria today rests on Mozart's use of his words in La Clemenza di Tito and that is probably why the name is still familiar. However, he was of such significance that, according to Wikipedia, L'Olimpiade was set by at least 15 notable composers and, also from Wikipedia, the number of settings probably exceeds 60. The least obscure is by Vivaldi. Amongst this long roster of musicians several are moderately well known even today, for example Hasse, Manfredini, Mysliveček and there is even an incomplete setting by Donizetti. The story of L'Olimpiade was derived from Herodotus, but looking at the plot it is clear why it attracted such a startling number of musical settings in an age where singers, notably castrati, ruled the operatic roost. It has two sets of lovers, several examples of disguise and mistaken identity, a problem with loyalties, promises made and needing to be broken, kings, queens, princesses, shepherdesses and a couple of near executions. The opportunities here for expressions of love, sadness, fury and for farewells are considerable. When the castrati were no more Metastasio's popularity ended. Opera libretti became more concerned with people's feelings and events in history and his stories of ancient gods and heroes were forgotten.
Pergolesi, as I noted in the review of La Salustia, died very young even by composer standards, of TB at the age of just 26. The present work was premiered in Rome in 1735 when he was 25. Having had such a short creative life his fame has been less than his talent deserves. He remains best known for La Serva Padrona, the archetypal opera buffa. So highly regarded was that piece that after his death passing off compositions as being by Pergolesi became a minor industry. This so muddied the waters of Pergolesi studies that it is only quite recently that organisations such as the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini at whose festival this performance was recorded, have clarified matters. The present piece is an opera seria and consists of a long stream of arias and recitatives mostly for high voices. There is no chorus but there is a substantial orchestra, by baroque standards, including strings, wind, brass and continuo.
The stage director always has a problem with this type of opera: how do you stage it? The venue, the Teatro Valeria Moriconi, is a converted 12th century church now used as a studio theatre. Experienced director Italo Nunziata has opted for a cruciform stage with the audience all around it save for the ends of the cross which are used for entrances and exits and one for the orchestra who occupy a large recess. The action uses galleries all around the building as well as the stalls-floor. This poses impossible problems for the audio engineers who cannot represent the performance space in sound without demanding the listener sits in the middle. Here the solution is miking up all the singers and remixing the sound to emanate from the front channels, using the rear channels for low-level ambience. Not even stereo sound results let alone surround. It is undoubtedly artificial but needs must. The video has no such limitations and the cameras manage to dwell on the various characters as they emote to the demands of the story and then pan around to show us any surrounding action: there is not much of this. The costumes are a colourful mix of long frocks and boiler suits, but as has been said by me before, what can you do with these old operas? The question is, does it work as theatre? Yes it does … and very well. Pergolesi's inspiration is consistently high and the music never gets boring provided you enjoy the baroque style to begin with. Devotees of classical and romantic opera will have to make adjustments. If you think the stories of Cosi or Il Trovatore are unbelievable, try this! Interested readers are referred to'Olimpiade for maximum confusion. Among many high points are the Act 2 aria 'Se cerca, se dice: l'amico dov'è?' beautifully sung by Sofia Soloviy as Megacle and the Act 3 aria 'Nella fatal mia sorte' sung by Jennifer Rivera as Licinda.
One can only admire the virtuosity of these singers and players. This must be as hard to sing as anything prior to the 20th century but I detected only a few signs of stress or exhaustion throughout close on three hours of music. The lightly dressed audience are busy fanning themselves so it must have been recorded in a heat wave, or just the usual Italian summer weather. The singers meanwhile have to contend with masks, alarming blonde wigs (everyone), variously high necklines or tight bodices, heavy bustles and mountains of make-up.
Unusually I have not mentioned the menus on the disc; fear not, these are the usual labyrinthine facilities accessible only via your machine remote's 'top menu' button. The disc itself only offers playing trailers or the opera. Once the opera is selected then it will play the opera, offering nothing else until the viewer presses the above button. Getting back to, say, Act 2 after a tea break, requires starting all over again; the opportunity to pick up where one left off is not offered. Sound and picture are top quality but the former is, as noted, an artifice. The booklet note consists of a thoughtful essay by Italian academic Francesco Cotticelli entitled Olimpiade:Heroic Fable par excellence which assumes you are concentrating on what you read. If you enjoy baroque opera this issue is for you.
Dave Billinge