L’Olimpiade, St John’s, Smith Square, London

Let’s hope for a bit more drama during London 2012. The UK premiere of Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade was (perhaps mercifully) a concert performance, but even so, there can’t have been many in the audience who followed every twist and turn of this opera’s laborious storyline.

First performed at the Venice Carnival in 1734, Vivaldi’s opera is one of a number of 18th-century works that were set to Pietro Metastasio’s libretto, a tale of love and friendship during the ancient Olympic Games. Today the narrative seems quaint and out-of-date, and is especially bewildering since female singers usually play the four main parts. But the real value is to be found in the score, and when it is performed to the high standard displayed in this concert, part of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, it can make for a rare and special evening.

Dazzling and virtuosic arias (Vivaldi’s nod to the fashionable Neapolitan style) are the main draw, and the singers in this performance were for the most part impressive. In the battle of the mezzos, Sally Bruce-Payne sang a bright and spirited Argene, and Louise Poole an altogether darker Magacle; but it was soprano Mhairi Lawson as Aminta who stole the show, demonstrating a flawless technique throughout, and dispatching the fiendishly difficult “Siam navi all’onde algenti” with effortless style.

The orchestral soundscape is limited by the dominance of stringed instruments and the only contrast was provided by a small contribution from two horns. The effect of this, coupled with the opera’s highly caffeinated arias, can be giddy-making, but Adrian Chandler, directing La Serenissima from the violin, wisely eschewed the trend for breakneck tempi in favour of depth and precision.

As with many 18th-century opera revivals, small cuts had been made to the recitative – these extended sections are often considered the least palatable element for contemporary audiences – but in the remaining stretches the performers revealed some delicious turns of phrase.

It is difficult to imagine Vivaldi enjoying the status that Handel, his near contemporary, now has at the world’s top opera houses (though the Garsington festival is gamely staging L’Olimpiade next month), but concert performances of this quality should be welcomed.


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