During the queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend, England was awash with spectacular events reflecting the country’s deep historical roots. No one watching the Thames Pageant of a thousand boats and the royal barge could deny its resemblance to Canaletto’s famous 1747 painting The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day. Of equal significance to public celebrations were numerous local gestures: from an 11-year-old girl’s Jubilee tea party in London to a village supper on a farm in Wales, culminating in the illumination of one of the cross-country fiery beacons (harking back to the 16th century, when they were used to warn of the approaching Spanish Armada).
In anticipation of this month’s Summer Olympics, one of the cleverest cultural events of the Jubilee weekend was the world premiere at Garsington Opera of the critical edition of Antonio Vivaldi’s 1734 opera L’Olimpiade, which combines romantic intrigues among royalty with the classical Greek Olympics. Like other country-house opera companies in England, Garsington offers the enchanting combination of excellent productions with bucolic garden walks and leisurely al fresco (and undercover) dining during first intermission.
Founded in 1989 by Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams at Garsington Manor, their home near Oxford and the former abode of Lady Ottoline Morrell of Bloomsbury fame, Garsington Opera is now in its second season on the nearby 2,500-acre Wormsley estate owned by Mark Getty. With ancient woodlands, sheep meadows, a deer park, a lake, and cricket grounds, Wormsley also features a two-acre 18th-century walled garden with buttressed yew hedges and perennial borders designed in 1991 by the eminent garden designer Penelope Hobhouse.
Performances are held in a new 30-foot-high, 600-seat pavilion made of steel and transparent vinyl fabric, with covered wooden verandas and a grand steel stairway to the lawn, designed by Robin Snell. The building appears to float above the landscape and nestles into a surrounding flintstone ha-ha wall that wraps conveniently around to form the orchestra pit. Stretched, curved side walls, like windsurfers’ sails, enhance the acoustics, and a double-layered, opaque grey vinyl fabric roof minimizes the sound of rainfall and reflections from stage lights.
Illuminated at night, the opera house has the feel of a conservatory, and the new garden adjacent to it, designed by Hannah Gardner with columnar yews, is reassuringly reminiscent of the old garden at Garsington Manor.
Still, opera is the main event, overseen in recent years by general director Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who “bravely” (he says) introduced Baroque opera into this mixture with a trilogy of Vivaldi operas: L’incoronazione di Dario in 2008, La verità in cimento in 2011, and, this year, the late opera L’Olimpiade. The latter was first performed in Vienna in 1733, with a libretto by Pietro Metastasio and music by Antonio Caldara, to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Elisabeth Christine. Vivaldi’s version was performed in February of the following year at the Teatro Sant’ Angelo in Venice during carnival season.
According to program notes, Metastasio’s libretto was shortened for Venice to limit its classical grandeur in favor of a more intimate story, one that became so popular that more than 60 composers have set the libretto to music following Vivaldi.
Loosely based on Herodotus, the story follows King Clistene of Sicyon, who is overseeing the Olympic Games, and is offering his daughter Aristea in marriage to the winner. Licida, a prince of Crete who is desperate for the prize, enlists his friend Megacle (a better athlete who, himself, secretly loves and is loved by Aristea) to compete in his name as repayment for saving his life. Megacle wins, but must honorably surrender Aristea to his friend. At the same time, Licida’s former betrothed, Argene, has become a shepherdess in the region, befriending Aristea as a confidante.
In an Oedipal twist, the denouement reveals Licida as the son Clistene believed he sent to his death at birth as protection against the Delphic Oracle’s prophecy of patricide (which Licida almost commits when condemned for his deception). In the end, Megacle and Aristea are united and Licida (now Aristea’s twin brother) returns to his old love.
With four colossal statues of Olympic athletes draped in willow fronds and a sacred altar, the open stage at Garsington serves well for imagining the changing outdoor venues of Olympia. And setting the tone for a classical romantic encounter, a mirror image of the lovers from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Fountain of Love adorns full-height sliding panels at rear stage. As characters seemingly enter from the woodland just beyond the transparent wings of the stage, one has the impression that kabuki was not far from the architect’s mind.
If a period opera works successfully in a contemporary setting, it can prove that the work is timeless—as it did in this production directed by David Freeman. When the singers entered in modern track shorts and running shoes, performing various calisthenics, one was instantly reminded that the Olympic Games, set to explode this week in London, have themselves miraculously survived as an athletic tradition originating in 776 b.c., and possibly still with a good amount of intrigue. There was even a little Hare Krishna mixed in with acolytes of Jupiter in saffron robes. And the competitions—boxing, shotput, and track—were all played out on the stage to the lively Vivaldi music. As the competitors circled around the stage in the last contest, the vertical panels at the rear slid open to reveal the runners against the countryside in a slow-motion vignette, with canned crowds roaring in the distance, which added a humorous comment on today’s televised instant replays.
With many of the arias familiar from concert performances, the Vivaldi music was gloriously brisk and fluid as conducted by Laurence Cummings, who also played the harpsichord. In the trouser role of Megacle, the American mezzo-soprano Emily Fons sang with a direct purity and clarity that were particularly affecting in the grief-stricken arias “Misero me! Che veggo?” and “Se cerca, se dice.” And as Aminta, tutor to Licida(here alsohis trainer), Michael Maniaci, a male soprano, performed his arias with haunting, sustained tones, especially in “Siam navi all’onde algenti,” on the turbulence of love.
As Licida, countertenor Tim Mead expressed belief in attendant victory in his early aria, “Quel destrier che all’albergo è vicino,” only to realize shameful defeat in his final aria of Act II, “Gemo in un punto e frema.”
Dressed, respectively, in the quasi-classical garb of princess and shepherdess, mezzo-soprano Rosa Bove as Aristea and soprano Ruby Hughes as Argene played their scenes together with a
harmonious compatibility derived from their shared views on the seeming fragility of their roles as women in this present society (though, eventually, their strengths win out). Their back-to-back arias in Act I, “È troppo spietato” (Aristea) and “Più non si trovano” (Argene), on the constancy and lack of it in love, made an artful blend. Baritone Riccardo Novaro as King Clistene, in business suit, was a stately presence throughout, monitoring the events that led up to the finale at day’s end, when his power over the games ceased, thus saving Licida—all of which transpired in accordance with Aristotle’s classical unities of action, place, and time.
Paula Deitz is editor of the Hudson Review.