The patrons fleeing the hall after the last bars of Spontini's Olympie deserve sympathy. Two-and-a-half hours of relentless crescendos, however handsomely sculpted, take their toll. Not that the performers did not earn the ovation by those who stayed. Jérémie Rhorer led the period ensemble Le Cercle de l’Harmonie in a turbocharged performance of the third version of this neglected work, which premiered in Paris in 1826. Successful and innovative in his time, Spontini now only survives in the repertoire thanks to his diva vehicle La vestale. A complete performance of any other of his operas is a rare treat. Overall, Olympie inspires admiration rather than endearment.

Karina Gauvin © Michael Slobodian
Karina Gauvin
© Michael Slobodian

The stiff, repetitious libretto by Dieulafoi and Brifaut, extracted from a historically inaccurate play by Voltaire, does not help. After Alexander the Great’s death, two generals, Cassandre and Antigone, vie for power and the hand of Alexander’s daughter Olympie by his Persian wife Statira. They both had a hand in Alexander’s murder, but Antigone is the unrepentant instigator, while Cassandre is a remorseful accomplice. During the attack on Alexander’s family, he even saved Statira’s life and then raised Olympie in safety. Fifteen years later, Statira is disguised as a priestess at the temple of Diana in Ephesus, while Olympie is incognito as a slave girl. Olympie loves Cassandre but her mother sees him only as her father’s assassin. After many revelations, vacillations and confrontations, Antigone is struck down and Statira gives the lovers her blessing.

Spontini conveys this turmoil with thickly orchestrated declamation and a series of build-ups to a galloping pace and/or tumultuous volume. Some of these sound like false run-ups. Sometimes he gives away his rhythmic figures too early before the finish, but the ensemble finales to the first two acts are imposingly beautiful. In fact, the choral scenes, together with the explosive brass and percussion, give the opera its dramatic proportions. They also contain some of its most comely melodies and these could not have sounded better than at this performance. Lyrical, vengeful or militant – the word-perfect Flemish Radio Choir was fantastic in every mood. Like the title character, Karina Gauvin came into her own in the third act, when colour suffused the top as well as the rest of her soprano. Olympie is a passive figure, and Act III opens with her praying to the gods for resignation. Gauvin easily cleared her big aria’s technical obstacles, and ignited the words with feeling. 

Even more firey, and vocally very fine, was tenor Mathias Vidal as Cassandre. Just as the opera itself is a prototype for grand opera, Cassandre is a precursor of later heroic tenor roles, demanding both agility and noble timbre. Vidal drew the character with exciting theatricality and projected his voice so effectively that it sounded bigger than it actually is. “O souvenir épouvantable” (O horrible memory), in which Cassandre relives the murder, is a gem and Vidal did it full justice. Lyrical bass Josef Wagner was the cold schemer Antigone, vocally suave and steady throughout. Bass Patrick Bolleire was so beautifully sonorous that one was glad every time his high priest came out to cry “Sacrilege!” at the warring nobles.

Although the opera is called Olympie, her mother Statira is the more interesting character, musically and temperamentally. Her grief and stature dominate from the start. In Act II Spontini gives her a marathon of arias, duets and recitatives, including the magnificent tirade “Implacable tyrans!” (Relentless tyrants!). Statira’s music recalls one of her contemporary creations, Cherubini’s Medea, and is plum mezzo-soprano fare. Juliette Mars was suffering from a cold and her Statira, carefully managed, was too small-scale for this formidable character. Her pointed diction and theatrical flair, however, were very commendable.

From the Beethoven-like artillery of the overture to the triumphant finale, Rohrer kept his forces in step and timed each tearing climax with unflagging verve. Apart from some occasional tonal unevenness, the orchestral playing was a pleasure, warm and varnished. Olympie’s best moments justify a reassessment of Spontini, whose thunder was stolen by Carl Maria von Weber and Rossini. One can appreciate why composers such as Berlioz and Wagner admired his musical narrative, with its continuous flow of scenes and monologues. The nuptial scene, for example, when Antigone vows revenge against a choral backdrop, foretokens Ortrud seething at the wedding in Lohengrin. Maybe it is unfair to judge this work on a concert performance, when its musical overstatement was meant to be seconded onstage by towering temples, processional grandeur, even an elephant or two. Despite its best features, however, it is not difficult to see why its halting plot and stop-and-go musical structure eventually caused Olympie to be forgotten.