An Olympian Opera

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I adore the Olympics. It is the greatest of international events, one that promotes friendship among peoples who put aside differences and admire human achievement. Yes, they can be tainted by commercialism, jingoism, drugs and other blemishes, but the Olympics have the power to enchant and inspire as few things can.

Although I have not owned a television for more than 20 years (I am a radio man), I do manage to be in front of other people’s screens for two weeks every four years for the Olympics. I wish I could be watching the Olympics from the stands of stadiums in New York. You might recall that my city competed to host these games and came in a miserable fourth after London, Paris and Madrid. As partisan as I am about New York, though, even I would not have awarded my city the games because its bid was so flawed and unimaginative. Therefore, I hope that New York might prove a worthy candidate in the future.

At the ancient Olympics, known as the Panhellenic Games and held at four sites, there was a musical competition at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Musicians played the aulos, a reed instrument that was a forerunner of the oboe, and the kithara, a stringed instrument whose name, as you can discern, suggests that it was a forerunner of the guitar.

In some modern Olympics (they were revived in 1896), there has been a significant arts component—a cultural Olympiad—which sometimes includes opera. From the 1912 Stockholm Olympics through the 1948 London Olympics there were arts prizes that mainly encompassed architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. The 1984 Los Angeles games included a production of Turandot by the nascent LA Opera. This month, the Royal Opera House presented all-star stagings of Les Troyens and Otello.

What was not much noticed was a concert performance on May 19, as part of London’s Lufthansa Festival, of Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade (“The Olympics”). Here is the opera's overture. When I heard about this concert, I tried to find out more about it and learned some surprising things.

In the 18th and early 19th century, it was customary to announce an opera in Italy with the name of the librettist first. Perhaps the most famous librettist of the 18th century was the Roman Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), who wrote more than a hundred texts that were used for operas, oratorios and other theatrical presentations. His works were based almost entirely on stories from antiquity, particularly the exploits and challenges faced by heroes.

Two of his most popular libretti were L’Olimpiade (1733) and La Clemenza di Tito (1734). What was distinct was that almost every active composer created an opera based on these texts. There are more than 50 operatic versions each of Clemenza, including ones by Gluck and Mozart, and L’Olimpiade. Metastasio wrote these texts in Vienna, where he spent the last five decades of his life and helped make Italian opera the dominant form in the Austrian capital.

L’Olimpiade was adapted from “The Trial of the Suitors” in Book Six of The Histories by Herodotus. In simplest terms, it is the story of two competitors, Megacles and Lycidas, at the ancient Olympic games who vie for the love of the same woman, Aristaea, whose hand is promised to the winning athlete. There is another woman, Argene, who will marry the other one. I will not narrate all of the twisty changes in the story, but they provide enough dramatic material that every character gets a lot of good music to sing.

This is perhaps the most popular operatic libretto of all time. Among those composers who set L’Olimpiade were its original composer, Antonio Caldara, who wrote it for Vienna in 1733, and Vivaldi, who composed it for Venice in 1734. Among the others, and I list them for a reason you will soon learn, were Luigi Cherubini; Domenico Cimarosa (1784); Baldassare Galuppi (1748); Florian Leopold Gassmann; Johann Adolf Hasse (1756); Niccolò Jommelli (1761); Leonardo Leo (1737); Vincenzo Manfredini (1762); Josef Myslivecek (1778); Giovanni Paisiello (1786); Davide Perez; Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1735); Niccolò Piccinni (1761); Antonio Sacchini (1763); Giuseppe Sacchi; and Tommaso Traetta (1758). Even the young Gaetano Donizetti attempted a version in 1817, but he did not complete it.

Complete productions are very rare nowadays. The Pergolesi was staged not too long ago in Naples. After watching this video, it should not surprise you that this production was rather controversial and not greeted warmly for its section that sounded like rap.

I tried to find a recording of at least one version of this work and located a new one with the unusual title of L’Olimpiade, The Opera. It is, in fact, a pasticcio or pastiche that uses the Metastasio libretto as its central organizing entity and the music of almost every composer listed above. While I suppose I would rather hear two or three whole versions by different composers, this recording is an enjoyable introduction, and timely too. It includes music from almost every composer I listed above. The conductor is Markello Chryssicos, who leads the Venice Baroque Orchestra.

Let me propose some comparative listening, all using the text “Gemo in un punto e fremo” by Metastasio: Here are versions by Galuppi, Vivaldi, Hasse, Pergolesi. Listen and leave a comment below: Which one do you prefer?

A study has shown the relationship between the synchronization of music and exercise to increased work output. How about this: Listen to Cecilia Bartoli sing “Siam navi all’onde algendi” from Vivaldi’s opera, at a speed that would daunt Usain Bolt. Let the Games begin!