Metastasio’s libretto L’Olimpiade is an amorous intrigue that takes place at the ancient Olympic Games. First set to music in 1733 by Caldara, only a year later Vivaldi’s setting was produced in Venice. In January 1735 another new version was unveiled in Rome by Pergolesi; initially a failure, the opera was part of the trilogy of works that rapidly established its composer’s posthumous fame, along with his celebrated Stabat mater and the comic intermezzo La serva padrona. But in modern times L’Olimpiade has lagged far behind: this live performance from last year’s Innsbruck Early Music Festival is the opera’s first unabridged period-instrument recording.
Academia Montis Regalis deliver a vivid interpretation that advocates Pergolesi as a musical dramatist of greater versatility and imagination than most of us will have hitherto suspected. The proto-classical overture is given a suitably athletic performance; string-playing can sometimes seem waspish but Alessandro de Marchi galvanises the dramatic pacing by encouraging animated ritornellos to crash in breathlessly after the final cadences of the long reams of recitatives (always sung with plenty of characterisation). Jennifer Rivera dashingly dispatches the heroic arias of the conceited Licida, whose abandoned lover Argene is sung ardently by Ann-Beth Solvang; both sopranos use more vibrato than is ideal for the precise sonorities of period instruments, although Pergolesi’s tender setting of Licida’s “Mentre dormi” is sensitively done (though I’m not sure about the hummed cadenza – no doubt it worked in the theatre). Tremulous tenor Markus Brutscher camps up Aminta’s early contributions but plays it straight to telling effect when he eventually resolves upon selfless heroism in Act 3. Jeffrey Francis’s muscular singing suits the Olympic host King Clistene. Raffaella Milanesi and Olga Pasichnyk are outstanding as the beleaguered lovers Aristea and Megacle; their bittersweet duet “Ne’ giorni tuoi felice” concludes Act 1 elegantly. The last few scenes of Act 2 constitute the intense emotional peak of the drama: Megacle’s solemn lament “Se cerca, se dice”, as he is forced to relinquish Aristea, is an unpredictable aria of impressive complexity and power; Aristea’s subsequent stormy rejection of Licida is thrilling (“Tu me da me dividi”) and is followed swiftly by the jilted Argene’s venomous rage at the faithless Licida (“No, la speranza”); the act culminates in the guilty Licida’s bitter self-reproach upon hearing of his friend’s apparent suicide. This fantastic sequence suggests that Pergolesi briefly ranked alongside the most thrilling creators of 18th‑century opera seria.