L’Olimpiade was composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in 1735 on a libretto by poet Pietro Metastasio which gave inspiration to about 60 different musical settings, including by Vivaldi, Caldara, Leo, Hasse and many others. It follows an intricate plot of friendship and rivalry, with two friends in love with the same woman, but putting their friendship before love, until one of the two is revealed to be her brother, an expedient to nicely solve the conundrum for a happy ending.

Anna Bonitatibus (Licida)
© Herwig Prammer

David Marton's new production was planned for the spring of 2020 but was derailed by the pandemic. In an heroic (and, alas, failed) attempt to save the premiere, Marton completely changed his concept. The score suffered very large and painful cuts, with all the recitatives gone, which of course made the already confused plot incomprehensible. But the idea of the director was no longer to tell a story. What he and video designer Sonja Aufderklamm did was to film some occupants of a retirement home, ask them to listen to the music and discuss it. So, what we saw in the Opernhaus was not an opera: it was a succession of arias and videos of the elderly people talking. Silent videos of the same people were also the backdrop in front of which the singers performed.

Joélle Harvey (Aristea) and Vivica Genaux (Megacle)
© Herwig Prammer

The comments about music soon gave way to reminiscences of their past lives; some of the older ones remembered World War 2, telling horror stories of fleeing Nazi-occupied countries in the hardest of circumstances. Painful, ancient stories of abuse surfaced in other conversations; many talked about their musical education (one of the ladies had been a professional violinist), with hints of regret at having abandoned the pursuit. The filming was in hyper-detailed close ups, and the result was extremely emotional.

This left me with several, contrasting thoughts – the first being that entering a retirement home, stationing a filming crew at close contact with the most vulnerable population right at the peak of the Covid pandemic had perhaps not been a bright idea. Another, more relevant, observation was that the videos gave us the chance of seeing, really seeing a segment of society with hardly any representation in the media or the arts. Their stories were profoundly human, and the director managed to show us these 80- or 90-year-olds as real human beings: their thoughts, their desires and fears as important as in any other moment in their lives. Listening to a love aria while seeing an elderly couple helping each other in their walk and casually holding hands was extremely moving.

© Herwig Prammer

And this, paradoxically, is also where the problem was: it felt like sometimes the director went for cheap effect, indulging in the physical and psychological frailty almost with a morbid look. It’s a fine line between averting the eyes as a form of respect for the vulnerability of other people, and denying them any representation, any voice. Marton and Aufderklamm stepped in with a bold and brave statement and should be praised for it, even if perhaps at times they missed the mark.

But what all this had to do with Pergolesi and his music remained unexplained and, overall, the feeling was of a crippled (if not missed) chance to enjoy this rarely performed opera. Ottavio Dantone, at the helm of the orchestra La Scintilla, gave a bright, spirited reading of the score, more on the energetic than the lyrical side. The singing cast was exciting, with Anna Bonitatibus (as Licida) dazzling with her warm, exciting mezzo, her three arias showcasing all her abilities in this repertoire, with the last, heroic one “Gemo in un punto e fremo” an explosion of perfect coloratura and secure high notes. The other main character, Megacle, was sung by Vivica Genaux, who showed a confident command of coloratura and Baroque style, even though her voice tended to get squeezed in the higher register, and her technique, with her typical “trembling” of her lips on the vibrato, didn’t seem at its best. Delphine Galou, as Alcandro, charmed us with the splendid, bronzed colour of her contralto, her interpretation of the beautiful “L’infelice in questo stato” tender and emotionally engaging.

Delphine Galou (Alcandro)
© Herwig Prammer

Aristea, the contended princess, was Joélle Harvey, who convinced with her silvery soprano, while Argene (Licida’s abandoned lover) was Lauren Snouffer, a very welcome surprise for me: her soprano showed a solid middle register and great presence. The cast was completed by tenor Thomas Erlank, who graced us with a great interpretation of “Siam navi all’onde algenti”, and bass Carlo Allemano, who convinced as King Clistene.

Some of the retirement home’s residents who we saw in the videos were present at curtain call and they, together with the cast, received great cheers from the audience.