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St John's, Smith Square, London

Vivaldi's 1734 opera seria seems to have suddenly sprung out of nowhere to become opera of the year: there's a full-scale production next month at Garsington; Andrea Marcon's Venice Baroque Orchestra is touring a pasticcio version stuffed with arias by a host of other composers who also set Pietro Metastasio's libretto; both are preceded by this UK premiere performance at St John's, Smith Square as part of the Lufthansa Baroque festival, which is also going on the road.

The clue, of course, is in the title. The Olympiad tells a story whose background setting is the ancient Olympic Games, with the two central male characters battling for the hand of Aristea, daughter of King Clistene, offered by her father as the victor's prize. You don't see the sporting events, unfortunately; instead there's a regular baroque scheme of disguises, swapped identities, incidental incestuous attraction, an attempted suicide, an assassination plot, and the eventual recognition of a long-lost royal son believed dead. In terms of off-track activities, it promises easily to upstage London 2012.

The Italian composer's once-ignored operas have gained considerable ground over the last decade; most of his extant scores have now been recorded, and Garsington's L'Olimpiade will be the festival's third Vivaldi title in five years. In this minimally staged performance, the piece came over as having some genuine highlights among its innumerable da capo arias, though the best ideas tend to go to the orchestra rather than the singers. Here they were suavely presented by the period ensemble La Serenissima under the joint direction of violinist Adrian Chandler and harpsichordist James Johnstone, though the playing could have done with a heightened sense of character. So could some of the singing, which had the odd iffy moment among some coolly careful vocalism. Stephen Gadd, as Clistene, outshone his colleagues in security and commitment.

Rating: 3/5

George Hall
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