Although I never had the pleasure of attending Garsington Opera in its original setting in Garsington Manor, I was very impressed by their new premises at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire, with their spectacular-looking and also comfortable opera pavilion. Had the sun shone on us, I am certain I would have enjoyed the overall experience hugely – unfortunately, on the opening night of Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade on Jubilee Weekend Sunday, the heavens opened and we had a soggy and muddy evening in evening dress, and it was not much warmer inside the pavilion either, with the strong rain sometimes drowning out the intimate and lyrical singing.

L'Olimpiade 2012, Emily Fons © Mike Hoban
L'Olimpiade 2012, Emily Fons
© Mike Hoban

In spite of the adverse weather, though, the singers and the orchestra – conducted with great energy and elegance by the distinguished Baroque opera interpreter Laurence Cummings – gave a generally impressive performance of this Olympics-themed Vivaldi rarity. Vivaldi’s operas have not yet quite caught on as Handel’s operas have, but this is the third Vivaldi opera Garsington Opera has produced in recent years (L’incoronazione di Dario in 2008 and La verità in cimento in 2011). All have been directed by David Freeman and conducted by Cummings, and the whole team seemed very at ease with his musical language.

L’Olimpiade (“The Olympic Games”) is a late opera by Vivaldi (he composed about 30 operas, of which about 20 survive), first performed in Venice in 1734. Compared to his more technically virtuosic early operas, the music in L’Olimpiade is more intimate and lyrical, and the virtuosity is often left to the orchestral writing, which reminds one of Vivaldi’s concertos. The Garsington orchestra, performing on modern instruments but in a historically-informed style, negotiated the tricky score with clarity and brilliance, and the continuo added colour and shading.

Regarding the plot, suffice it to say that it is set in ancient Greece and the story centres on a tangled love situation involving two young men (Megacle and Licida) and two girls (Aristea and Argene), none of whom can marry the one he/she really loves – as in so many Baroque operas. It begins when Megacle (Emily Fons) agrees to take part in the Olympics under the name of his friend Licida (Tim Mead) so that Licida could win the hand of Princess Aristea (Rosa Bove), the daughter of King Clistene (Riccardo Novaro). However, Licida doesn’t realize that Princess Aristea is in fact Megacle’s lover, and cue a lot of desperate, lamenting arias by both, including a duet. To add to the confusion, Argene (Ruby Hughes), betrothed to Licida, comes looking for her unfaithful lover disguised as a shepherdess (yes, we get the obligatory sheep and lamb, although thankfully not real sheep). Several twist and turns later, Megacle and Aristea, Licida and Argene are reunited and the opera concludes in a happy end of sorts.

The director David Freeman’s approach to the opera is generally straightforward, albeit in modern costume: the men dressed as athletes in tracksuits and trainers (except for the King, who is in a suit, and his advisor, in a uniform) and the girls in nondescript white summery dresses. As only minimal set changes can be made because of the lack of backstage space, the simple sets consisted of four plinths with Greek statues (which were covered with foliage during the forest scenes) and an altar. We got some visual entertainment during the scene of the Olympic Games between Acts I and II, where we had boxing, shot-put and the marathon all with tongue-in-cheek orchestral effects including a quotation from the famous “Chariots of Fire” theme (admittedly a bit cheesy). The cuts were done judiciously – although I did detect a couple of jumps in the narrative – and the evening didn’t seem overlong, even with the picnic interval.

In a way, the underpowered production led the audience’s focus to Vivaldi’s music and the singing. The cast was overall a fine one and the best singing came from the two main male-character roles: passionate and classy singing from the young U.S. mezzo-soprano Emily Fons as Megacle, and rising British countertenor Tim Mead as Licida was also in radiant voice, eloquent in his recitatives and displaying tender lyricism in his arias, especially in “Mentre dormi” (Act I). Unfortunately, mezzo Rosa Bove who sang Aristea, the object of love for both, didn’t have the vocal qualities to match – her voice was too small and lacked colour. Ruby Hughes as Argene sang with passion and commitment, although her portrayal of the character seemed at times too feisty for a Princess. The King was authoritatively sung by Riccardo Novaro and William Berger as his advisor Alcandro was in good voice too, although not always in time with the ensemble. Last but not least, the virtuosic role of Licida’s tutor Aminta (originally written for the castrato Nicolini) was sung with flair by the experienced American male soprano Michael Maniaci with some well-crafted cadenzas.

In summary, this was a production in which the directorial team, the singers and orchestra came together to serve Vivaldi’s music. The music may not have the dramatic momentum of Handel’s best operas, but there are some attractive arias and individualistic orchestral writing which was very enjoyable. Although I can’t say that the production enhanced my understanding of the opera, musically it was worth the trip to Wormsley.