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"L'Olimpiade, the Opera"

Karina Gauvin (Argene), Ruth Rosique (Aristea), soprano; Romina Basso (Megacle), Franziska Gottwald (Licida), mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Spanos (Aminta), alto; Nicholas Phan (Clistene), tenor
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Markellos Chryssicos

rec: August 2011, Mondovi, Oratorio di Santa Croce
Naïve - V 5295 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (2.03'15")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Sinfonia
[act 1] Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Superbo di me stesso (aria, Megacle); Baldassare GALUPPI (1706-1785): Quel destrier, che all'albergo è vicino (aria, Licida); Giuseppe SARTI (1729-1802): Oh care selve, oh cara felice libertà! (aria, Argene); Josef MYSLIVECEK (1737-1781): Del destin non vi lagnate (aria, Clistene); Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740-1816): Tu di saper procura (aria, Aristea); Davide PEREZ (1711-1778): Più non si trovano (aria, Argene); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Mentre dormi (aria, Licida); Florian Leopold GASSMANN (1729-1774): Ne' giorni tuoi felici (duo, Megacle & Aristea)
[act 2] Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): Grandi, è ver, son le tue pene (aria, Aristea); Tommaso TRAETTA (1727-1779): Che non mi disse un dì! (aria, Argene); Johann Adolf HASSE: Siam navi all'onde algenti (aria, Aminta); Tommaso TRAETTA: Del forte Licida (chorus); Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714-1774): So ch'è fanciullo Amore (aria, Clistene); Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842): Se cerca, se dice: 'L'amico dov'è?' (aria, Megacle); Leonardo LEO: Tu me da me dividi (aria, Aristea); Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736): No, la speranza più non mi alletta (aria, Argene); Baldassare GALUPPI: Gemo in un punto, e fremo (aria, Licida)
[act 3] Niccolò PICCINNI (1728-1800): Caro, son tua così (aria, Aristea); Niccolò JOMMELLI: Lo seguitai felice (aria, Megacle); Davide PEREZ: Fiamma ignota nell'alma mi scende (aria, Argene); Johann Adolf HASSE: Son qual per mare ignoto (aria, Aminta); I tuoi strali terror de' mortali (chorus); Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801): Non sò donde viene (aria, Clistene); Johann Adolf HASSE: Viva il figlio delinquente (chorus)

Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) was the most famous librettist of the 18th century. Numerous librettos from his pen were used by composers across Europe. One of the most frequently set was L'Olimpiade. The first setting dates from 1733 and was written by Antonio Caldara (1670-1736), the last is from 1815, by the German composer Johann Nepomuk von Poissl. Metastasio was an Arcadian, like many other prominent figures of his time, such as Pietro Ottoboni - patron of many composers - and Apostolo Zeno, another famous poet and author of librettos. The Arcadian movement was strongly influenced by antiquity as well as the moral principles of Descartes. According to the latter "virtue was best revealed in an individual's mental and spiritual ability to control actions that may be incited by human passion". Therefore "dramatic poets should teach moral principles under the guise of giving pleasure, and should move the emotions of audiences and readers in favour of the moral stance" (quotations from New Grove, ed. 2001). This explains the text of many arias in Metastasios librettos as well as their 'happy endings'.

L'Olimpiade takes its subject from the Olympic Games, but not so much the very fact of the Games itself. After all, the last time the Olympic Games had taken place was 393 AD. When humanism in the 16th century rediscovered the cultures of Greek and Roman antiquity, the phenomenon of the Olympic Games also reemerged. In the booklet Julian Fyfer quotes Shakespeare and John Milton who both refer to the Games in their works. Metastasio treated the subject from a rather pastoral point of view. Real sharp edges are more or less avoided. A synopsis of the libretto can be found here. In his liner-notes Reinhard Strohm writes: "We seem to be in a different play: Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus the King. But in our opera, patricide and incest are avoided". It is telling that the first setting, by Antonio Caldara, was performed in Vienna during the vacation period in August, when the Habsburg empress celebrated her birthday. That would not be the right occasion to perform an opera heavy with conflict and including acts of treason and murder, as in some other Metastasio librettos.

The present recording features all the arias of his libretto but by different composers. The music spans the period from 1733 (Caldara) to 1783 (Cherubini). In the booklet it is called a pasticcio, which New Grove defines as an "opera made up of various pieces from different composers or sources and adapted to a new or existing libretto". This practice dates from the late 17th century and at first was not universally accepted. It was only in the second half of the 18th century that this form gained a certain degree of respectability. It was a way of taking profit from the popularity of arias by the most famous composers of the time. Historically speaking this recording can't be called a pasticcio. First of all, we only get arias; they are not linked by recitatives. This means that it is impossible to understand the plot without reading the synopsis. It also means there is no dramatic interaction between the protagonists. They all sing their own arias, without any dramatic connection between them. Secondly, the arias are from very different periods: a span of fifty years (1733-1783) may seem not a very long time, but stylistically Caldara and Cherubini are worlds apart. The change in style from one aria to another is sometimes quite drastic, for instance at the start of the second act, when Caldara's aria Grandi, è ver is followed by Che non mi disse un di! by Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779), whose setting dates from 1758. If you expect a piece of real music-theatre here, you will be disappointed.

This production can best be treated like a long public concert of arias from various operas. In an opera production the soloists need to portray their respective characters in a dramatically convincing way. That is hardly possible in an aria programme like this. Reinhard Strohm gives a description of the various characters in the story, and the singers generally live up to that description quite well. Stylistically these performances are far from perfect. In particular Romina Basso and Karina Gauvin use quite a lot of vibrato which is not justifiable. Some cadenzas are a bit exaggerated. On a positive note, they avoid the partly rewriting of dacapos - a bad habit in many opera recordings these days. At first I had to get used to the singing of Nicholas Phan, but his interpretations of the three arias of Clistene are amongst the best here. I also liked Nicholas Spanos who has two arias in his role as Aminta, among them the brilliant aria in the second act, Siam navi all'onde algenti by Hasse. Romina Basso is at her best in the highly dramatic aria Se cerca, se dice by Cherubini. Franziska Gottwald shines in the superb sleep aria by Vivaldi, Mentre dormi. Karina Gauvin and Ruth Rosique have brilliant arias in the second act: Tu me da me dividi by Leo (Rosique) and No, le speranza by Pergolesi (Gauvin).

Julian Fyfer, the producer of this recording, has made a fine choice from the many settings of this libretto. It is quite possible that a complete different choice would have resulted in an equally entertaining programme. With this choice we get very different compositional styles and different ways of dealing with the texts. The programme includes some composers who are hardly known, such as Davide Perez, Tommaso Traetta and Florian Leopold Gassmann. Even in the case of the better-known composers we only know a handful of their operas, and most of their dramatic works are seldom or never performed. This production should also be an incentive to opera houses and conductors to look for different repertoire. Wouldn't it be better to perform an opera by Caldara or Leo than, for instance, Handel's Giulio Cesare for the umpteenth time?

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Karina Gauvin
Franziska Gottwald
Nicholas Spanos
Nicholas Phan
Venice Baroque Orchestra

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