Out of the Shadows

Friday, 13 July 2012

Buxton Festival - Vivaldi L'Olympiade


Megacle (Louise Poole), Aminta (Mhairi Lawson), Aristea (Rachael Lloyd), Clistene (Stephen Gadd) & Alcandro (Jonathan Gunthorpe), L'Olymipiade, La Serenissima, photo Maxim Reider
Photo Maxim Reider
The problem with Vivaldi's L'Olympiade is that Vivaldi and Metastasio (writer of the original libretto) probably took the libretto entirely seriously. The plot is a terrible farrago of unintended consequences and unforseen co-incidences, the sort of thing which gives opera seria a bad name. In effect, it is a series of dramatic situations strung together; each scene gives the composer an interesting new aspect of the characters. It might not be helped by the fact that Vivaldi replaced a significant number of Metastasio's aria texts, his libretto being adapted by Bartolomeo Vitturi. The result is rather too many simile arias, that fatal last resort of the opera seria librettist. But Vivaldi's response was to write a series of arias with catchy tunes or accompaniments. What's director to do. For their new production, La Serenissima turned to Richard Williams whose response was to ensure clarity of plot and to apply just enough wit and humour. I saw the production on 11 July at its first appearance at the Buxton Festival.


One problem for any director (and for the audience) is that of the seven protagonists, the five major ones are high voices, two of whom spend a chunk of the opera pretending to be someone else. Williams and his costume designer, Jane Wheeler, opted to go for admirable clarity. Setting the piece in the present day, in a festal room clearly designed to celebrate the end of the Olympic Games, the cast all spent most of the opera sitting around the tables, interacting and coming forward during their scenes. Each had a costume which helped define them.

Megacle (Louise Poole) was an athlete, so she was wearing sweat pants and a top clearly emblazoned with his name, Poole also had a pair of boxing gloves round her neck, indicating Megacle's prowess. When Megacle agrees to impersonate his friend Licida, then the top was changed to one emblazoned with Licida's name.

Licida (Marie Elliott), the Prince who fickly changes his lovers and attempts to win the games by getting Megacle to impersonate him, was portrayed with louche elan by Marie Elliott; convincingly looking like a young man with a pony tail, trendy tweeds and tan shoes, smoking considerably.

Aristea, the princess who is the prize at the games, was played with suitable hauteur by Rachael Lloyd, dressed in glamorous white. Argene, Licida's original love, is disguised as a shepherdess in the original libretto. Williams and Wheeler transformed Sally Bruce-Payne into a county hunting lady, complete with whip which came into play at various times during the opera.

Aminta, the philosopher who is Licida's mentor, was transformed into a female priest, giving an understandable context to the character's prosy philosophising. Dramatically, Aminta is not too important but Vivaldi gave the character some stunning arias. Mhairi Lawson got to sing the arias and did a nice line in smug philosophy.

The two lower voice roles are less important. Clistene, the King who has offered his daughter as a prize in the games was played by Stephen Gadd, in a wheelchair for some reason. And Alcandro, Clistene's henchman, was Jonathan Gunthorpe in a bowler hat.

The opera was sung in Italian with English summary in the surtitles. The result was that the plot was admirably transparent and generally, at any time you knew what was going on and to whom. Which is quite a feat in this type of opera.

The music was all admirably sung, with the singers accompanied by La Serenissima; a band of around 20 players directed by Adrian Chandler (violin) and James Johnstone (harpsichord).

Vivaldi had an astounding melodic gift and many of the arias were a sheer delight to listen to, even if they did not necessarily take the drama very far. Lawson got the lions share of the more elaborate writing, and was her usual consumate self, making the runs seem easy. Her aria which closed the first half, Siam navi allonde algenti, was on its way to being a show stopper.

But when the going got tough, Vivaldi was content not to dig too deep. The lovers Megacle and Aristea have a lovely duet when they think that they will never meet again and Aristea marry another man. Vivaldi produced a touching tune, Ne giorni tuoi felici, which was beautifully sung by Lloyd and Poole. Touching and finely sung, but it didn't wring the heart the way Handel could.

Similarly both Aristea and Argene get big arias where they lament their tragic lot. Each aria was attractive and was well sung, expressively sung by Lloyd and by Bruce-Payne. But both are suspiciously up-tempo, particularly in their accompaniments. Taken out of context, each would be a delight but I doubt that you would guess the torments that the aria was supposed to express.

Having sung Robert Storch in Richard Strauss's Intermezzo the night before, Gadd was on great form in Vivaldi as well. Gunthorpe bumbled away amusingly as Alcandro, though he seem a little ill at ease in the aria.

The ending, when it came, was telegraphed from a great distance. Though La Serenissima's decision to play the opera with a full text was entirely admirable, I can't help feelng that it would have benefited from some cuts. Gadd's arias, though finely sung, fell into the same prosy moralising category as Lawson's, which was a bit too much for me. And the end desparately needed a trim. In some of Handel's opera serias it is the final act which receives the most shortening. Something like that was needed here to speed the action up.

I have generally, never quite seen the point of Vivaldi operas. But watching this one, I finally understood. Vivaldi was never a great dramatist like Handel, but he did have the ability to spin a good tune, think Lehar rather than Puccini, Andrew Lloyd Webber rather than James MacMillan.

To give the piece the best chance, La Serenissima opted for the music, with cast and instrumental all giving fine, expressive performances. Vivaldi's music is not easy, his instrumentally inclined vocal lines can be tricky and the singers all coped admirably, producing some dazzling singing. And Wilson's production brought clarity and wit to a confusing plot, without ever trying to score too many points.

Above all this was a great show, well enjoyed by the audience in the Buxton Opera House.



See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012

Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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