René Clemencic / Clemencic Consort

Vivaldi: L'Olimpiade

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It's astonishing that Vivaldi composed L'Olimpiade so late in his career, in 1734, when he was in his mid-fifties, after having demonstrated his mastery of opera with works like Tito Manlio, Orlando furioso, and Atenaide. On the basis of this performance, the opera sounds like it might have been written by an amateur. It starts with an oddly clunky "Sinfonia" that could be generously described as "interesting" in its alternation of phrases of four and three bars' length. The orchestration is at best perfunctory; the bulk of the music seems to have no middle, just a melody high in the violins, and a bass line, with very little, if anything, going on in between. Instances of counterpoint are scarce and rudimentary, and much of the writing sounds like the kind of insubstantial note spinning that can give the Baroque era a bad name. There are some lovely exceptions; the countertenor aria "Mentre dormi amor fomenti" and the duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano "Ne' giorni tuoi felice" stand out for their depth of feeling and musical inventiveness. It's possible that some of the music's lack of effectiveness is due to the performance by Ensemble Vocal La Cappella and Clemencic Consort, conducted by René Clemencic, and that a different, better balanced ensemble could make a more compelling case for the opera, making sense of its musical eccentricities and finding subtleties in its apparent plainness. The vocal soloists are generally erratic, some mediocre and some more than adequate, but their unevenness makes for a roller coaster ride of a listening experience. The standouts are mezzo-soprano Elisabeth von Magnus, soprano Mieke van der Sluis, and (after a rough start), countertenor Gerard Lesne, all of whom sing with fine, focused tone and strong characterizations. The sound quality of the live 1990 performance is generally poor and seems under-engineered, with prominent extraneous sounds like page turning and a singer clearing his throat. The Vivaldi enthusiast interested in L'Olimpiade would do better to explore the 2002 release by Opus 111, which also has the advantage of presenting a more complete version of the opera.

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