Recensioni - Opera

Vivaldi's Olimpiade at the Festwochen der Alten Musik between music philology and misunderstood baroque theatre practice

A sober, coherent but not fully resolved production of the extremely rare title to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio in Innsbruck

The 'Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik', or Early Music Weeks in the Tyrolean capital, which in the summer of 2023 will have a programme entirely dedicated to Antonio Vivaldi, whose Olimpiade and later La Fida Ninfa will be performed.

The conductor of the Olimpiade will be the festival’s musical director, the Italian Alessandro de Marchi, while the stage director is always an Italian, Stefano Vizioli.

A completely forgotten title, this Olimpiade, at least in Vivaldi's version. In fact, the libretto was later set to music by over 70 composers, as was customary in Baroque music. The opera was first performed on 17 February 1734 at the Teatro Sant'Angelo in Venice, but was soon put aside. To save time, Vivaldi had composed it as a 'pasticcio', drawing heavily on pieces already written for at least eight other operas, including the Fida Ninfa.

L'Olimpiade is, if you like, a manual of baroque stage practice. A libretto inspired by various sources, sufficiently complex and sometimes confusing, with disguises, lost sons, oracles, male friendship, impossible loves and a happy ending in 'opera seria' style, with a prince who turns out to be wise and enlightened in the finale. Incidentally, it is always a good exercise to read the plots of Baroque operas, which are masterpieces of incomprehensibility and prosaic contrivances in which one always and inevitably loses the thread.

In short, a musical 'pasticcio' built around the singers at the composer's disposal, as was the custom at the time, with various arias taken from other operas, to which were often added the famous 'arie da baule', that is to say, the highlights that each singer always had with him or her, and which he or she would often insist on performing in the opera instead of others less congenial to the singers.

Stefano Vizioli sets the story at the time of the 1936 Olympic Games, in a kind of gymnasium where, during the overture, some valiant young men perform athletic exercises. A nice idea, together with the massage in the sauna during the dialogue between the two protagonists; Megacle is in fact an athlete who has come to take part in the games. Sometimes there is irony, sometimes there is even a somewhat ambiguous game between the characters, but it all fades away as the work progresses: the ideas run out of steam, so to speak, and there is refuge in the obvious and predictable. Instead of Olympic tension in the style of Leni Riefenstahl or Jesse Owens, we find ourselves inexorably in the controlled, bourgeois tranquillity of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere.

The set includes elaborate curtains, a few Greek statues, various sports equipment, a balcony on the right; in the second act we visualise a tailor's shop where the flags of the nations are being prepared, in the third the brazier of a great Olympic torch. All accurate and well done, but after the initial accents, perhaps an attempt at “Regietheater”, the action becomes sterile in a succession of arias and recitatives unsupported by any real dramaturgy. Beyond the skill of the singers and the splendour of the music, the stage event slips inexorably into repetition.

On the other hand, it is worth reflecting on the fact that these philological operations are often limited to musical study, forgetting the 'philology' of the staging. In fact, we are performing a Baroque opera according to the musical standards of the time, but we are placing it in a post-Wagnerian theatrical context, where the auditorium is dark and the audience is silent and composed. In those days, however, the theatre was illuminated, it was a social event, the audience felt free to come and go (usually everyone arrived when the opera had already started) and listened only to the arias that aroused their interest or to the phenomenon singer of the moment.

Great proof that the baroque performance worked for these reasons was Aminta's aria from the second act, 'Siam navi all'onde algenti', which in the mouth of the superlative sopranist Bruno de Sá became a bravura piece, with a da capo stuffed with embellishments, gorgheggi and high notes that sent the audience into raptures. It was here, amidst the applause, that the meaning of Baroque opera in the practice of the 18th century was revealed: musical entertainment for a social evening. The task of a contemporary revival is not only to reproduce the music, but also to find a way of making the stage event work.

Today we have two choices: either we can have dramatic theatre with a dramaturgy that manages to keep the audience seriously engaged in the darkness of the 'Wagnerian' theatre for long acts that are a series of arias, which very often means distorting the whole thing and making it modern, provocative. Or to accept the old practice and perhaps even do some philology in the staging: a little light in the hall, the singers 'stepping out' of character to show off their arias, the da capo which, instead of being identical, are a display of virtuosity often not intended by the composer, the inclusion of 'arie da baule', perhaps also something contemporary. This could be interesting and innovative.

In both cases, musical purism is involved and somehow attacked, but on the other hand it is also purism to be aware that this is not music composed with the idea of the demiurge artist, which has permeated us since the Romantic and Wagnerian revolutions, but honest compositional craft. It is enough to remember that in the Baroque theatre, composers were generally paid less than singers and librettists.

To return to the staging, Stefano Vizioli does his best and even has some good intuitions when he tries to add irony or spice up the recitatives with scenic precision. In the long run, however, a certain vagueness prevails, in which the solutions are purely aesthetic, with the singers going in and out to perform their pieces. All in all, it remains a pleasant, well-organised and carefully staged production, also thanks to Emanuele Sinisi's sober set and Anna Maria Heinreich's costumes, which are appropriate but not always in tune.

The conducting by Alessandro de Marchi, whose expertise has set the standard for the Baroque repertoire, is obviously flawless, precise and attentive. The conductor gives us a full, agogic sound and an excellent relationship between the pit and the singers.

Vocally, the highlight of the evening was Bruno de Sá, with his capacity to be a 'star' and a great display of vocal ability. His soprano skills were superlative, but what was superlative was the performance as a whole. The singer created an exaggerated character, out of dramatic context if you like, in fact he had little to do with the 'old educator', but a winner precisely because the audience, which is always right, instinctively grasped not the scenic incongruity but the ability to put on a show, vocal entertainment, suddenly illuminating at the sound of applause the true purpose, the true mission of baroque music theatre.

The rest of the cast was excellent, but more 'in a role', more faithful to the dictates of the stage, which in this kind of theatre nobody cares about, and therefore made less of an 'impression', as they used to say in forgotten times.

Raffaele Pe proved himself to be an excellent artist with a fine countertenor voice and good interpretative verve. At his side, Bejun Metha completes the countertenor pair with a firm and ductile voice, even if he is less scenic. Christian Senn interprets the character of the king with a soft and homogeneous voice, flanked by the excellent bass Luigi De Donato as his adviser. Less convincing, but correct and committed, were Margherita Maria Sala (contralto) and Benedetta Mazzuccato (mezzo-soprano).

Full theatre and convincing success for all performers in the finale. There was much applause for Maestro Alessandro De Marchi. After 14 years at the helm of the Innsbrucker Festwochen, he is stepping down with this festival.

Raffaello Malesci (Tuesday 8 August 2023)