Théâtre des Champs-Elysées 2023-24 Review: L’Olimpiade

By Laura Servidei
(Photo: Vincent Pontet)

Paris is gearing up for the upcoming 2024 Olympic Games, and a variety of Olympic-themed events are taking place throughout the city. In this context, Antonio Vivaldi’s opera “L’Olimpiade” is a must-see, with the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées showcasing a new production by Emmanuel Daumas.

Belgian soprano Jodie Devos, who recently passed away untimely, was originally scheduled to perform in this production. The theatre’s general and artistic director, Michel Franck, addressed the audience before the performance, requesting that we stand in silence to honor her. It was a poignant moment.

An Impossibly Convoluted Plot in a Quirky Production

The libretto, written by Pietro Metastasio the most successful librettist of the 18th century, presents an extremely convoluted story with a backstory longer than the opera’s actual plot. This complexity did not deter Baroque audiences; they loved it so much that it was set to music dozens of times by various composers.

Licida, infatuated with Princess Aristea, asks his friend Megacle to assume his identity to participate in the games and win the princess’s hand. The plot thickens when Megacle realizes that Aristea is the lover he was once forced to give up. Torn between friendship and love, Megacle decides to sacrifice his happiness for his friend (not even considering that Aristea might have her own opinion on the matter). Predictably, the plan backfires: Megacle attempts suicide, Aristea raises hell with splendid furore arias, and Licida, upon learning the truth, loses his mind and tries to murder King Clistene. The situation is resolved when Licida is recognized as Clistene’s long-lost son, leading to a happy ending where Licida agrees to marry his ex-girlfriend Argene, who has been lamenting his unfaithfulness in fantastic arias throughout the entire opera.

Director Daumas chose an imaginative interpretation, emphasizing the Olympic games angle: five dancers and one acrobat, dressed in athletic outfits, were almost constantly on stage, performing choreographies inspired by athletic endeavors (created by Raphaëlle Delaunay) that acted as a commentary on the narrative. Athleticism can be seen as remarkably similar to Baroque coloratura singing, as the mere display of prowess evokes emotion and excitement, leading audiences to revere athletes (singers) as heroes. Thus, the production had its own internal consistency. Megacle was portrayed as the true hero of the story, while Licida came across as a brat, oblivious to others’ feelings until reality hit him hard. The costumes for the singers (designed by Marie La Rocca) were mostly in full “baroque flamboyance,” but adapted with modern quirkiness. Several gags made the production somewhat whacky, but overall, the director’s ideas fit well with the sense of wonder characteristic of Baroque theatre, resulting in a fun and engaging show.

Beautiful Voices

Megacle is a role en travesti (a woman sings the part of a man), and Marina Viotti wore a “muscular-man suit,” making her somewhat believable as the heroic winner of the Olympics. Her mezzo was warm and deep, uniform across its entire range, and her coloratura was flawless. She was extremely effective both in boasting Megacle’s athletic skills in “Superbo di me stesso” (literally: “proud of myself”), an aria of self-praise, and even more so in the more emotional arias. Her rendition of “Se cerca, se dice,” the aria where Megacle leaves Aristea to his friend, was touching. The final aria, “Lo seguitai felice,” where Megacle decides to stand by his friend even in the darkest hour, was spectacular and visually striking, with her body floating in the air with white wings, like an angel.

Jakub Józef Orliński played Licida; his countertenor voice possesses an ethereal, angelic quality, free of the sharp edges in the high register that many of his colleagues exhibit. His performance was a perfect blend of musicality and physicality: he moves very well on stage and (of course) did not miss the opportunity to breakdance, which was quite entertaining. Despite the objective beauty of his voice, I always find it a bit monotone; he tends to sing everything in the same manner, with little variation in the emotions expressed. In Licida’s pièce de résistance, “Gemo in un punto e fremo,” an aria where he realizes the horror of the situation after his friend’s suicide, Orliński used his body to convey the depth of Licida’s feelings, with jerky movements reminiscent of the Thriller video. It was well executed and effective, and the audience loved it, but it highlighted that the voice itself lacked the necessary expressivity. Nevertheless, his rendition of “Mentre dormi, amor fomenti,” a dreamy aria to lull his friend to sleep, was remarkably beautiful.

Caterina Piva, a young mezzo-soprano with a mellow, sumptuous voice, played Aristea, the princess loved by both friends. The part was perhaps a bit too low for her range, but her performance was excellent, with ringing, full high notes. Her aria “Sta piangendo la tortorella,” a trope of Baroque operas about a crying turtledove, was particularly memorable, thanks in part to acrobat Quentin Signori twirling in the air above her, creating a poetic image. Aristea and Megacle share the opera’s only duet, and Piva and Viotti displayed great chemistry, making it one of the evening’s highlights.

Delphine Galou played Argene, Licida’s former lover. Her contralto voice was velvety and bronzed, with perfect style and technique. Although her projection could perhaps be stronger, her voice was one of the evening’s delights. She also displayed great spirit in the aria “Più non si trovano,” where she exploited the rhythm of the text for a humorous effect.

Aminta, Licida’s tutor, was portrayed as a magician by Ana Maria Labin. Her soprano was silvery and exceptionally smooth on the high notes, with flawless coloratura. She indulged in peculiar vocalizations in “Il fidarsi della speme,” but her rendition of “Siam navi all’onde algenti,” which closes the first act, was nothing short of spectacular.

Luigi De Donato portrayed King Clistene. He was dressed in short, baggy pants (Spanish breeches, typical of the 16th century) and thigh-high white patent leather boots – he pulled it off with panache. His portrayal of the ambiguous king was accomplished by a beautiful bass voice, demonstrating great skill in coloratura and style.

The cast was rounded out by Christian Senn, portraying Alcandro, King Clistene’s confidante. His standout moment came with the aria “Sciagurato, in braccio a morte,” accompanied solely by a cello solo on stage performed by Anastasia Baraviera. The eerie lighting added to the atmosphere, allowing Senn’s beautiful baritone voice to shine and captivate the audience in a beautiful rendition.

And Spinosi!

Jean-Christophe Spinosi approached Vivaldi’s splendid score with overwhelming energy, leading the Ensemble Matheus in a performance brimming with fire and furore. He wholeheartedly embraced the director’s humorous and tongue-in-cheek approach in the first act, employing dramatic contrasts, onomatopoeic sounds, and expressive cries from the orchestra to complement the comedic moments on stage. As the plot delved into deeper emotions, Spinosi heightened the emotional impact by incorporating heart-wrenching lamentations and fully utilizing the ensemble’s expressive capabilities. The accompaniment of “Gemo in un punto e fremo” was stunning.


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