Of all the Olympics-related products created to honor the upcoming summer games in London, surely one of the oddest must be a brand new pasticcio just released on a two-CD set by Naïve—L’Olimpiade.
From more than 60 settings of Metastasio’s most famous libretto, the creators have chosen pieces by 16 composers ranging from the overture by Leo to a duet by Gassmann to Hasse’s final coro. This two-hour collage becomes a fascinating sampler of the mostly un-mined treasure trove of music by rarely performed 18th century opera composers; while unsatisfactory as a unified work, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun!
The opera’s hero Megacle, an Olympic champion, arrives in Elide to participate in new games about to commence. He’s been recruited by his “friend” Licida (who once saved his life) to compete in his place as he knows (but Megacle does not) that the winner will be awarded the hand of Elide’s King Clistene’s daughter Aristea, who is, of course, in love with Megacle. Licida has discarded the princess Argene (living nearby disguised as a shepherdess) in his pursuit of Aristea. Inevitable complications and misunderstandings ensue including Megacle’s presumed suicide by drowning after the subterfuge is exposed. There is the inevitable revelation that Licida is Clistene’s long-lost son and through Megacle’s magnanimity the two couples are happily (re)united.
From a 21st century perspective it may be difficult to understand why this particular Metastasio creation became the most often set libretto of all time. But one benefit of that phenomenon was that should a visiting castrato arrive unprepared for the version being done, he would surely know his character’s arias by one or more other composers (so-called “suitcase arias”) which could be easily inserted into the performance.
L’Olimpiade is not entirely unknown today; there have been several recordings of Vivaldi’s setting including a very good one by Rinaldo Alessandrini as well as of Pergolesi’s (an ear-opener if one’s only acquaintance with the short-lived composer is La Serva Padrona!) Galuppi’s is even available on DVD. Unsurprisingly, arias from each of these operas appear in the new concoction.
Even English composer Thomas Arne got into the act in 1765 writing a version for London, his only stage work in Italian and a far cry from his usual fare, like Miss in her Teens or The Blind Beggar of Bethnel Green. Unfortunately none of Arne’s L’Olimpiade score has survived, but we can imagine his take on it from his other Metastasio work Artaxerxes composed to an English adaptation.
Naïve’s libretto is coy about L’Olimpiade’s sources, listing only each piece’s composer but not the date or location of its premiere. However, interested listeners will find that information below collected (and corrected—changes were made from the original plan) from an article tracing the work’s genesis
Superbo di me stesso (Megacle) Johann Adolf Hasse 1756 Dresden
Quel destrier, che all’albergo è vicino (Licida) Baldassare Galuppi 1747 Milan
Oh care selve, oh cara felice libertà! (Argene) Giuseppe Sarti 1778 Florence
Del destin non vi lagnate (Clistene) Josef Myslivecek 1778 Naples
Tu di saper procura (Aristea) Giovanni Paisiello 1786 Naples
Più non si trovano (Argene) Davide Perez 1753 Lisbon
Mentre dormi (Licida) Antonio Vivaldi 1734 Venice
Nei giorni tuoi felici (Aristea/Megacle) Florian Leopold Gassmann 1764 Vienna
Grandi, è ver, son le tue pene (Aristea) Antonio Caldara 1733 Vienna
Che non mi disse un dì! (Argene) Tommaso Traetta 1758 Verona
Siam navi all’onde algenti (Aminta) Johann Adolf Hasse 1756 Dresden
Del forte Licida (Coro) Tommaso Traetta 1758 Verona
So ch’è fanciullo Amore (Clistene) Niccolò Jommelli 1761 Stuttgart
Se cerca, se dice: “L’amico dov’è?” (Megacle) Luigi Cherubini 1783?
Tu me da me dividi (Aristea) Leonardo Leo 1737 Naples
No, la speranza più non mi alletta (Argene) Giovanni Battista Pergolesi 1735 Rome
Gemo in un punto, e fremo (Licida) Baldassare Galuppi 1747 Milan
Caro, son tua così (Aristea) Niccolò Piccinni 1768 Rome
Lo seguitai felice (Megacle) Niccolò Jommelli 1761 Stuttgart
Fiamma ignota nell’alma mi scende (Argene) Davide Perez 1753 Lisbon
Son qual per mare ignoto (Aminta) Johann Adolf Hasse 1756 Dresden
I tuoi strali terror de’ mortali (Coro) Johann Adolf Hasse 1756 Dresden
Non so donde viene (Clistene) Domenico Cimarosa 1784 Vicenza
I tuoi strali terror de’ mortali (Coro) Leopold Gassmann 1764 Vienna
Vivà il figlio delinquente (Coro) Johann Adolf Hasse 1756 Dresden
A quick glance reveals that the selections range across 53 years from 1733 to 1786; while we do get an overview of how opera seria changed over that time, alarming gear shifts result, and the lack of recitatives also makes transitions more awkward. The music from before 1760 usually sounds like it fits together, but the pieces written after that are less likely to follow a traditional da capo form and may have a richer orchestral accompaniment with a marked increase in the use of winds with flutes and horns much more prominent than before.
An argument used to justify the Met’s recent misbegotten oddity The Enchanted Island was that pasticcios were common in the 18th century, and so they were. But as far as I know, they never drew from music from several languages and traditions (as EI did) nor did they combine music written over a long time span. For example, Vivaldi created Rosmira in 1738 and included Handel, Pergolesi, Mazzoni, Hasse and other composers active at roughly the same time. Although the differences in the musical language from the 1730s to the 1780s might not be as pronounced as in some other eras, can one imagine a work incorporating pieces from the 1870s to the 1920s? However, I suspect many enjoying L’Olimpiade may be less alarmed by the occasionally jarring juxtapositions than those of us who more regularly listen to large swathes of 18th century vocal music.
Surprisingly, the Venice Baroque Orchestra is not conducted here by its usual leader Andrea Marcon but by the relatively unknown Greek harpsichordist Markellos Chryssicos who does a very fine job despite sometimes eccentric tempi. According to the CD booklet Chryssicos came on board due in part to Greek involvement in the pasticcio’s conception (appropriate for something Olympian); in addition he recently conducted Caldara’s L’Olimpiade, the work’s very first setting which premiered in 1733 in Vienna, where Metastasio was imperial poet laureate. I also suspect that Marcon’s contract with Deutsche Grammophon (for whom he also leads the Basel-based La Cetra) may have precluded his involvement, but that hasn’t prevented Marcon from conducting L’Olimpiade‘s current European tour.
The cast’s best known name, Karina Gauvin, has five arias, yet Argene’s aren’t among this pasticcio’s most memorable, although she sings three arias by two of the more obscure figures included: Giuseppe Sarti, perhaps best known for his Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode, quoted by Mozart in Don Giovanni’s final banquet scene; and Davide Perez, an Italian whose brief fame arose from operas he wrote for Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake. While several Sarti operas have been released on Bongiovanni, Gauvin was supposed to record Solimano last summer with Reial Companyia Òpera de Cambra but funding fell through depriving us of a chance to finally hear an opera by Perez. Although those three arias are certainly pleasant, Gauvin’s best moments occur in Traetta’s Che non mi disse un di! showcasing her golden soprano and easy coloratura at its best.
As the hero Megacle, Italian contralto Romina Basso, veteran of many Vivaldi recordings, shines in arias by Hasse, Cherubini, and Jommelli. Although Basso sometimes lapses into self-indulgent mannerisms, her bold and smoky voice blaze vividly here, especially in her long final Jommelli aria where she trades bravura flourishes with the oboes and horns. It’s also fascinating to hear the 23 year old Cherubini’s Se cerca, se dice from one of the more than 10 opera seria he wrote in his native Italy before leaving to eventually settle in France where he wrote his more familiar works and lived the remainder of his life.
For fans of German mezzo Franziska Gottwald, it’s frustrating to encounter her Licida in this high-profile project: a pleasure because it will surely introduce her to a wider audience but a disappointment that two of her three arias come from Galuppi in whose opera she already appears on DVD, so only the sublime Vivaldi Mentre dormi will be a new treat. Her burnished high mezzo, well differentiated from Basso’s, glows beautifully as she expertly sustains Chryssicos’s extraordinarily slow tempo for the Vivaldi slumber song, nearly nine and a half minutes, where Sara Mingardo’s version on the complete Alessandrini recording runs a mere seven.
The Spanish soprano Ruth Rosique always delights but may have also slipped under most people’s radars except for her lovely Aci to Mingardo’s Galatea in Handel’s early serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. As Megacle’s beloved Aristea her arias run the widest historical gamut from two of the earliest—Caldara (a particularly sparkling Grandi è ver) and Leo— to two of the latest—Paisiello and Piccinni. In addition, she joins Basso for the only duet, an exciting highlight from Florian Leopold Gassmann, best known for his riotous sendup of baroque opera L’Opera seria which features three prima donnas and their overbearing stage-mothers, all played by men in drag!
The sterling ladies are let down somewhat by their male counterparts, the two Nicholas’s. As Clistene, Nicholas Phan is nearly defeated by Myslivecek’s fiendishly florid aria; Jommelli’s and Cimarosa’s lie more comfortably within his abilities. Unfortunately countertenor Nicholas Spanos (quite fine on two of George Petrou’s Handel series on MDG) often sounds swoopy and over-matched by both of Hasse’s splendid arias for Aminta (Licida’s tutor), which is too bad since Hasse’s opera is consistently superb and long a favorite of mine. The ridiculously fast tempo for the amazing Siam navi (with its virtuoso bassoon line) sadly helps neither Spanos nor Hasse:
The Venice Baroque Orchestra’s tour of vocal athletes (featuring most of the CD’s cast) played Monday in Brussels and concludes in Paris on June 6 with further “excerpts-only” concerts occurring in July and October in Italy. Vivaldi’s version takes the stage twice in England during its Olympic summer at the Buxton and Garsington festivals. Conductor Václav Luks and his excellent Czech period orchestra Collegium 1704 take up the baton in May 2013 staging Myslivecek’s opera in Prague with performances to follow in France and Luxembourg.
However, this recording may end up causing frustration for those becoming bewitched by an aria by one of the rarer composers. Sadly few Hasse operas have been recorded since 1986’s Cleofide although there are rumors that this summer’s revival of Artaserse at Martina Franca may be recorded.
Caladara is a particular favorite and although Glossa last year issued a really lovely serenata, one needs to turn to a fine collection of arias by Philippe Jaroussky to enjoy his operatic writing. However, my favorite Caldara recording is a wonderful collection of cantatas by Max Emanuel Cencic.
Perhaps because Cimarosa, Paisiello, Galuppi and Piccinni are best known for their comic operas, little of their serious dramatic music has been performed or recorded. Having heard Antonio Florio conduct Piccinni’s Didone Abbandonata with Roberta Invernizzi in Paris in 2003, I know that many, many more riches are waiting to be rediscovered. In the meantime, however, we should be grateful Näive’s new very enjoyable crazy-quilt L’Olimpiade is around to revel in while waiting for the non-operatic Olympic Games to begin in late July.