Doing Vivaldi proud: his Olympic opera performed with verve & imagination by Irish National Opera

Doing Vivaldi proud: his Olympic opera performed with verve & imagination by Irish National Opera
Vivaldi: L'Olimpiade - Sarah Richmond, Alexandra Urquiola, Gemma Ni Bhiriain, Chuma Sijeqa, Meili Li, Rachel Redmond, Sean Boylan - Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)
Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade – Sarah Richmond, Alexandra Urquiola, Gemma Ni Bhriain, Chuma Sijeqa, Meili Li, Rachel Redmond, Sean Boylan – Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade: Gemma Ni Bhriain, Alexandra Urquiola, Meili Li, Sarah Richmond, Rachel Redmond, Sean Boylan, Chum Sijeqa, director: Daisy Evans, conductor: Peter Whelan, Irish Baroque Orchestra; Irish National Opera at Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House
Reviewed 25 May 2024

The youthful vitality of the cast was compelling in his highly imaginative version of Vivaldi’s Olympic opera that managed to mix entertainment with drama in just the right balance, plus stunning playing from the pit

Metastasio’s libretto L’Olimpiade (The Olympiad) was written for Antonio Caldara’s opera of that name, premiered in Vienna in 1733. It proved popular and would be set by over 50 composers including Vivaldi, who wrote L’Olimpiade for Venice in 1734 and Pergolesi in 1735. Vivaldi’s opera was performed by Garsington Opera in 2012, part of the relatively tentative reassessment of Vivaldi’s operas that is slowly taking place. 

Having wowed with Vivaldi’s Il Bajazet in 2023 [see my review], Irish National Opera returned to Vivaldi, again with the Irish Baroque Orchestra, conductor Peter Whelan, in the pit for a production of L’Olimpiade done in collaboration with the Royal Opera House. We caught the final performance of the run at Covent Garden, which had been preceded by an Irish tour, so the performance was admirably bedded in. The production was directed by Daisy Evans with designs by Molly O’Cathain, lighting by Jake Wiltshire and movement by Matthew Forbes. Gemma Ni Bhriain as Megacle, Alexandra Urquiola as Aristea, Meili Li as Licida, Sarah Richmond as Argene (disguised as Licori), Rachel Redmond as Aminta, Sean Boylan as Alcandro and Chuma Sijeqa as Clistene.

Vivaldi: L'Olimpiade - Peter Whelan, Irish Baroque Orchestra - Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)
Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade – Peter Whelan, Irish Baroque Orchestra – Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

The plot concerns some fairly standard opera seria tropes, two couples each at cross purposes thanks to parental interference, plus a lost baby, an attempted drowning and interfering servants. As the opera opens Licida (Meili Li) and Argene (Sarah Richmond) have split and she is living as the shepherdess Licori. Licida is competing in the Olympic Games where the prize is the hand of King Clistene’s daughter Aristea (Alexandra Urquiola). To ensure he wins, Licida persuades his friend Megacle (Gemma Ni Bhriain) to compete in his name. Except that Megacle and Aristea are lovers, split apart by parents, whilst Licida’s former lover Argene (Sarah Richmond) is living as a shepherdess. Cue the usual confusion, and throw in Licida’s tutor, Aminta (Rachel Redmond), and courtier Alcandro (Sean Boylan), and you just about have it.

The opera is, however, not without its oddities.

The games themselves take place at the beginning of Act Two (the end of Part One in this version). A long, expository Act One was followed by two more compact acts where a great deal of action was compressed in a short time with important dramatic moments presented as narrative description.

It is not a daring opera, Handel was structurally more adventurous. I am also unclear what we actually heard, what cuts there were, what the additional material was as I understand that opera was bolstered by arias from other Vivaldi operas. Never having heard Caldara’s L’Olimpiade, it is tricky to assess Metastasio’s original libretto, and of course that set by Vivaldi was presumably adjusted for his version The quality of the libretto is perhaps indicated by the preponderance of simile arias; rather than telling you what they were feeling, characters were rather wont to say they felt like a ship on the ocean or a turtle dove.

Vivaldi: L'Olimpiade - Alexandra Urquiola, Gemma Ni Bhiriain - Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)
Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade – Alexandra Urquiola, Gemma Ni Bhriain – Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

As presented here, Licida’s predicament in the final two acts was relatively unexamined. There was, for instance, no prison scene aria for him. And he only reencountered his original love, Argene, again in Act Three. Instead the opera concentrated on the other lovers, Megacle and Aristea. But even here, when Megacle was rescued from drowning there was no dramatic scene in the manner of Act Three of Handel’s Giulio Cesare.

The vocal casting is distinctive too. Aminta was the only high soprano. Both heroines were originally contraltos with Megacle as a soprano castrato (here, mezzo-soprano Gemma Ni Bhriain) and Licida as a travesti contralto (here, counter-tenor Meili Li). Vivaldi used this to give us a symphony of mellowness. He focused on the melancholy of the parted lovers, Megacle and Aristea. And with Licida and Argene separated for much of the opera, the other relationships come into focus, the friendships of Licida and Megacle, and that of Aristea and Argene. This latter pair had a lovely duet with Vivaldi really leveraging the two equal, intertwining voices.

The production relied on Rachel Redmond’s Aminta for high voiced virtuoso dazzle, with Daisy Evans’ production really making imaginative use of Aminta’s arias as production numbers when dramaturgically they were rather inconsequential. Most of the remaining music was bravura yet more mellow in style, and that underlying vein of melancholy.

It worked because the opera did exactly what Vivaldi set out to do, to entertain without going too far below the surface. And everyone was wonderfully invested in the work. Daisy Evans’ production was a model of clarity; extra scenes were done in dumb show to help with the plot, and there was never a hint of irony or distance. Evans simply told the story with verve and imagination. Molly O’Cathain’s design leveraged the Olympic idea with a quasi-auditorium set that proved very flexible, and costumes that nodded towards both period fashion for sports wear and 18th century dress. All the cast were in white blouses/shirts and breeches worn with red stockings and trainers, looking vaguely like Victorian sportsmen, with the unused cast members remaining in a changing room to the rear. Each singer had an extra layer of costuming, put on and off as needed, waistcoats for the men, frocks for the women, each of which changed the look to quasi-18th century, and all utilising rather stylish fabrics. The look was distinctive and imaginative, yet functional too.

Vivaldi: L'Olimpiade - Sarah Richmond, Alexandra Urquiola, Gemma Ni Bhiriain, Chuma Sijeqa, Meili Li, Rachel Redmond, Sean Boylan - Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)
Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade – Sarah Richmond, Alexandra Urquiola, Sean Boylan, Gemma Ni Bhriain, Rachel Redmond, Meili Li, Chuma Sijeqa – Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

From the first notes of the overture, Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra made it clear that this music mattered. Every note was vivid and fully invested in. From start to finish the instrumental playing was compelling, Vivaldi’s dazzling instrumental writing given the right amount of virtuoso dazzle and meaning.

The singers were similarly invested in the piece, and we had lots of fine singing. As Aristea, Alexandra Urquiola found a lovely vein of melancholy that never palled. She made fine use of her lower register and kept us in sympathy for the whole two hours. Quite a feat. Her duets with Gemma Ni Bhriain’s Megacle and Sarah Richmond’s Argene were some of the highlights of the evening. Gemma Ni Bhriain had the tricky task of encompassing Megacle’s moral challenges during the opera, and she did so admirably, combining musicality and sympathy rather wonderfully. She made a highly believable hero, despite the moral dilemmas that Megacle was subjected to. 

Sarah Richmond was rather underused as Argene, though she created a strong character, her melancholy edged with an element of sharpness. As her beloved, Licida, Meili Li had a tricky task indeed. For Act One, his character is rather shitty, aiming to get what he wants by deception, yet Li’s soft-grained tone made Licida more sympathetic. Then when the going got tough, the opera rather lost interest in him, yet Li remained a watchable performer.

Rachel Redmond had great fun with Aminta’s virtuoso arias, combining bravura with a strong stage presence. Sean Boylan managed to create distinctive stage persona for the courtier, Alcandro, complete with a pair of vibrant arias. Chuma Sijeqa had great presence as Clistene, the King, taking the stage with ease.

Vivaldi: L'Olimpiade - Sarah Richmond, Alexandra Urquiola, Gemma Ni Bhiriain, Chuma Sijeqa, Meili Li, Rachel Redmond, Sean Boylan - Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)
Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade – Sarah Richmond, Alexandra Urquiola, Gemma Ni Bhriain, Chuma Sijeqa, Meili Li, Rachel Redmond, Sean Boylan – Irish National Opera (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

The production did Vivaldi’s opera proud. The youthful vitality of the cast was compelling, particularly the way they formed a dramatic ensemble with individuals slipping easily in and out of character. This was opera seria as entertainment, pure and simple, so that were were moved by the characters’ plights and enjoyed the bravura moments. This was probably the type of opera that his patrons rather wished Handel would write more often instead of his more deeply probing dramas, but there is space on our stage for both.

We sat in the seats at the side of the Circle of the Littleton Theatre. These are billed as restricted view, granted, but given that the theatre is largely a new, rebuild, I was rather shocked that a good third of the stage was invisible, and I gather that the view from the row behind was worse.

For those interested in pursuing the Olympic dream, Pergolesi’s 1735 setting of Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade is being performed by Vache Baroque Festival, 31 August to 8 September. All we need now is a staging of Caldara’s original!

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