CD Review: Vivaldi et al: L'Olimpiade

Venice Baroque Orchestra/Markellos Chryssicos (Naive V5295)

7 June 2012 4 stars

Julia LezhnevaAs the 2012 Olympics approach, London is bedecked with nationalist symbolism not only for the games but for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee which would appear to have provoked us, as a nation, to rejoice in a nostalgic revisiting of 1950s taste. Whereas coronation favourites such as teacakes and sponge cake have not changed significantly with the passage of time, Baroque music is in a quite, quite different position from the way it was heard in the 1950s. The sea-change in performance practice, and ergo listening experience, was so passionately wrested from the hands of modern ensembles and the results of the new breed of skilled period instrumentalists so convincing that only now with an appropriate distance do we realise the extent to which things have changed. Modern ensembles such as the Venice Baroque Orchestra play with a fluidity and grace that was would have been unimaginable in the middle of the last century and their singers seem to have found a confident style that marries passion and clarity.

This new release is part of a growing number of high quality baroque recordings that reflect the bewildering volume of eighteenth century music that has not previously made it into modern performance, and projects like the Vivaldi programme, spearheaded by naïve - with their distinctive packaging and ear for sprightly, energetic performances - is now reaching into the vaults of forgotten music and finding some real treasures.

L’Olimpiade is no exception to the high standard of the naïve catalogue but it is a curious disc since rather than containing a complete opera, this disc covers the complete arias in Metastasio’s libretto. The sixteen composers represented in this pasticcio each set either the full opera to music or parts thereof and so this resulting disc is like a selection-box of music stretching from Caldara (1670-1736) via Vivaldi and Hasse all the way to Cherubini (1760-1840) and as a result covers quite a wide stylistic ground on its journey.

The plot itself is a charming Arcadian tale of a King’s daughter whose hand in marriage can only be won through triumph at the Olympic games. It has the usual sub-plots of disguise and concealed identity and, as always, Metastasio’s characters are so well defined that they lend themselves to great music. Indeed, under Markellos Chryssicos’ baton, the opera is both well cast and well performed with a pleasing contrast between the two sopranos Karina Gauvin and Ruth Rosique and the two mezzos Romina Basso and Franziska Gottwald.

Vivaldi’s music only appear’s once in Licida’s delicious sleep aria Mentre dormi deliciously sung by Gottwald and, of the other sixteen composers there are several arias worthy of note but Jommelli’s stormy Lo seguitai felice for the character Magacle - Romina Basso - is really exciting.

This is a fantastic release and despite the oddity of hearing an endless stream of arias, it is worth the time getting to know. The taut, passionate performances are of a very high quality and, of course, it’s a pleasing foil to the Olympic mania that is about to overwhelm us. For those wishing to find out more, naïve have posted footage from the recording sessions on youtube: but listeners should bear in mind that the sound quality on youtube is very disappointing; what you get on the cd is, thankfully, a world apart.

 By Ed Breen