More than 50 composers set Pietro Metastasio’s libretto L’Olimpiade between 1733 and 1815, starting with Caldara and including along the way such names as Pergolesi, Galuppi, Cimarosa, Cherubini and Paisiello. Compared to these figures, some of the most illustrious in 18th-century opera, Vivaldi was a bit of an outsider, yet his L’Olimpiade was the second to appear, receiving its première less than a year after Caldara’s had hit the stage in Vienna.
The booklet note for this new recording suggests that Vivaldi was trying to take on the newly fashionable Neapolitan composers at their own game, not only by setting a poem by their favourite librettist, but also by adopting some of their musical mannerisms. Maybe so, but there can be few composers with a more deeply ingrained personal style than our friend the Red Priest, and it is an unmistakably Vivaldian flavour which is the strongest in this thoroughly agreeable work.
The story is played out against the backdrop of the Olympic Games (the ancient version, naturally), at which the prize is the hand of the princess Aristea. Licida has fallen in love with her and, being no athlete himself, prevails on his friend Megacle to compete under his name, unaware that Megacle and Aristea have long had an understanding. Licida in the meantime has forgotten his own love for Argene. Complications and misunderstandings inevitably arise, ending in an unsuccessful assassination attempt by Licida on Aristea’s father King Clistene, who, it then transpires, is really his father, too. The ‘correct’ couplings are duly restored.
Despite the public context, this is a drama which focuses on the personal predicaments of the principal characters, each of whom faces an interesting conflict between head and heart somewhere along the line. This is more apparent from Metastasio’s words than from Vivaldi’s music, to be honest, but that is not to say that the composer has been unresponsive. The most effective and intimate moments occur in the recitatives, which are fluidly conversational and full of realistic interruptions, questions and exclamations, all of which Vivaldi handles with considerable (and, some might say, surprising) dramatic skill. The arias, by comparison, are less carefully tailored to circumstance, though many are highly enjoyable pieces in their own right, if often for their scintillating string accompaniments as much as for their vocal excitement. Slow numbers, by the way, are remarkably thin on the ground.
Rinaldo Alessandrini’s direction is typically unfussy and to-the-point, ever alert to the music’s dramatic intent but without imposing himself on it unduly. His predominantly Italian cast likewise goes about its business with intelligence and technical surety; only Roberta Invernizzi and Sergio Foresti are actually Baroque specialists here, but the others all have voices well-suited to the music, plus a handy degree of operatic experience. The finest vocal performances come from Sara Mingardo, Roberta Invernizzi and Sonia Prina, but in truth no one is a weak link. The recitatives are effectively done, the arias thrown off with dash and aplomb, and everyone sounds as if they believe in the work.
On the whole I enjoyed L’Olimpiade more than Farnace, which appeared on CD only recently (Alia Vox, 10/02). Even so, two Vivaldi opera recordings in less than six months looks like major progress for the composer’s reputation, and is certainly much to be appreciated.