L’Olimpiade, Metastasio’s libretto of 1733 – written 1340 years after the last of the ancient Olympic games – provides the text for a pastoral opera with the background of the Olympic games. It is a play set in green outdoors with aristocratic characters, one of whom is disguised as a shepherdess. What better setting for such an opera than the new Wormsley home of Garsington Opera? The Getty Estate in Wormsley provides the green outdoors in abundance, aristocratic guests seem to mingle with common folks in the auditorium and there is no shortage of sheep in the background. The glass walls of the theatre allow a view of the outdoors and, from time to time, David Freeman’s witty and insightful staging shifts some of the glass doors and walls to incorporate the outside scenery.
Garsington Opera opted for Vivaldi’s version of Metastasio’s libretto. During the 18th century over fifty composers set Metastasio’s text to music. They included, for instance, Pergolesi, Galuppi, Hasse, Cherubini, Cimarosa, Paisiello, to name just a few. Vivaldi’s setting of 1734 was the second, closely following Caldara’s of 1733. It may be reasonable to suggest that all those composers might have been competing (even if there was no particular prize to win) against each other as, indeed, athletes in Metastasio’s tale were competing for their medals as well as for the hand of the King’s daughter.
This summer we witnessed a gentle competition of a different kind too. While preparations for the London Olympics dominate some aspects of our lives, several UK performances of Metastasio’s Olympic tale have materialised. La Serenessima got in first and presented the UK debut of Vivaldi’s setting on 19th May, in a concert performance within the 2012 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music. Nine days later, on 28th May, the Venice Baroque Orchestra presented a new pasticcio version of the text with music by sixteen 18th century composers (including Vivaldi) in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. On 30th May, La Serenessima staged Vivaldi’s version, as a first UK staged performance of the work, at the Bath Festival. And now Garsington Opera gave us the world premiere of Alessandro Borin’s critical edition of Vivaldi’s setting. Within less than a month we have been spoiled with four versions of L’Olimpiade which most of us have not even heard of, let alone actually heard until the spirit of the London Olympics inspired such performances.
If the competition between the performances listed above was real, Garsington’s presentation would definitely be a strong contender for the top medal. First there is the ideal setting, as already discussed. Then there is the expertise and artistic integrity of stage director David Freeman and conductor Laurence Cummings.
Metastasio refers to the Olympic games throughout his libretto – the story unfolds in Olympia and the plot deals with cheating at the Olympic games – but sport is only talked about. Director David Freeman puts sports on the stage: he opens the story with actors doing strenuous exercises and, in the relevant part of the story, he inserts and stages competitions in various disciplines of the Olympic games. At one point he shifts the side doors of the auditorium; actors and singers pass through while they are delivering their Olympic run. On conclusion of the games we even have a podium for the winning athletes. So, quite rightly, Freeman puts Olympics into L’Olimpiade.
Freeman is also aware of the pastoral nature of Metastasio’s text. Greenery is present on the stage (as well as outdoors through the auditorium’s glass walls), so are sheep (although in the stuffed variety). During one of her arias, Argene (a noble Athenian woman disguised as a shepherdess) is even shown shearing sheep. In the opening scenes Nature is also represented in the discreet background worshipping of Nirvana that is the natural re-ordering of the mind and body, apparent in many ancient cultures.
Freeman treats the rather silly plot with a light touch of humour but also with compassion. For him the characters are real people with real passions and sorrows. Argene, somewhat tragic and static on paper, particularly comes to life as a flesh and blood woman. Freeman’s deep musicality (and decades of theatrical experience) is put to good use in moving his singers and actors at appropriate musical moments. His singers don’t just stand and deliver their arias but, equally, they do not work against the music. Physicality and musicality are joined and thus have created true art on stage.
Conductor Laurence Cummings surprised me with his deeply sensitive treatment of the musical material. In the past I heard Cummings conduct with intelligence and spirited dynamism in bigger opera houses but never with such sensitivity for the lyrical. Perhaps he liked what he saw on stage or perhaps he is more comfortable with the Garsington orchestra than with some other orchestras. At any event, the Freeman-Cummings partnership appears to be a winning combination.
The singers were, without exception, of very high standard. Counter-tenor Tim Mead (Licida) and mezzo Emily Fons (Megacle) particularly stood out, but full credit is due to the whole ensemble: Riccardo Novaro (King Clistene), Rosa Bove (Aristea), Ruby Hughes (Argene), Michael Maniaci (Aminta) and William Berger (Alcandro). And perhaps actors Junichi Kajioka and Damola Onadeko are ready for the London Olympics? One of them particularly impressed with his endless push-ups.
From where I sat, it looked that the upper strings of the orchestra were standing throughout the whole performance. If I saw correctly, they too deserve olimpic medals. Especially as they played, as the whole orchestra did, with verve and style.
The current Garsington Opera season is sponsored by Jefferies. Judging by this Vivaldi production, they certainly have value for their money. And so does the audience.
By Agnes Kory
Photo Credit: Mike Hoban