Spontini, the favourite of Napoleon and Josephine, had his greatest successes with La vestale and Fernand Cortez, staged at the Opéra in 1807 and 1809 respectively. By the time Olimpie was premiered, on December 22, 1819, the world had moved on. The Parisian public had lost its taste for neo Gluckian tragedy and the production was taken off after seven performances. Spontini then took up an appointment at the Prussian court: Olimpia, translated by ETA Hoffmann, was a success in Berlin and elsewhere in Europe, but a new production in Paris launched on February 29, 1826 – the version recorded here – lasted a mere five performances.
Hoffmann did more than translate the opera. The original, based on a tragedy by Voltaire, has Cassander responsible for the death of Alexander the Great and the wounding of his wife Statira; their daughter Olympias, who loves and is loved by Cassander, commits suicide along with her mother, the opera ending with the apotheosis of Alexander and both women. In the Berlin version, which became Paris mark 2, Cassander is accused by Statira, but the true villain is Antigonus; he is the only one to die. (In Voltaire’s play, Cassander dies too.)
The setting is in and around the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. Statira and Olympias are living under assumed names. When mother and daughter are reunited, the former fulminating against Cassander, Antigonus – who also loves Olympias – arrests his rival. Cassander escapes and launches an attack with his men. Antigonus, mortally wounded, admits to the murder of Alexander. Statira is proclaimed queen and the innocent Cassander marries Olympias. The story provided Spontini with plenty of opportunity for spectacle. Ceremonies in each of the three acts feature the chorus; it’s a pity that the Ballets and the Marche triomphale are omitted. The opera had the reputation of being noisy: even Berlioz, whose admiration of Spontini was second only to his devotion to Gluck, commented on ‘the sundry useless flourishes … so much so that the instrumentation is at times heavy and confused’. It’s true that the trombones are much in evidence and the tam-tam has a field day, but Jérémie Rhorer keeps his excellent orchestra under control.
The music for the soloists is well characterised. Statira’s scene in Act 2 begins and ends in F minor; in the middle comes ‘Implacables tyrans’ in D major, vigorous in the manner of Orestes’ ‘Dieux qui me poursuivez’ in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Interestingly, Antigonus’s dying curse – powerfully sung by Josef Wagner – is similar to Caspar’s in Weber’s Der Freischütz, which was premiered in Berlin in June 1821, a month after Spontini’s opera. In Act 1, Cassander’s turmoil is represented by minor-key dotted figures that lead to a delicate prayer and firm resolution in the major. Mathias Vidal is everything you could wish for. Karina Gauvin and Kate Aldrich, both excellent, have such similar voices that it’s hard to tell them apart, but of course they blend beautifully in their recognition duet, ‘N’auriez-vous d’une mère aucun ressouvenir?’. As the Hierophant presiding over the ceremonies Patrick Bolleire is sonorously authoritative.
A warm recommendation, then. But, unusually for Bru Zane, the ancillary material shows a want of care. After announcing that the spelling Olympie will signify the 1819 version and Olimpie its 1826 counterpart, the translation gets it wrong several times. In the libretto, the Hierophant’s ‘À la voix de ses dieux’ is wrongly attributed to Antigonus. And the latter’s air ‘Auguste épouse d’un héros’, mentioned in the analysis of the opera, is missing from the recording. As for the translation itself, you might wince at ‘plethoric’ or ‘caducity’; but I was glad to be introduced to ‘fustigate’ (look it up).