Irish National Opera and Irish Baroque Orchestra at Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire on 5 May 2024

After the gritty politics of ‘Griselda’ (2019) and ‘Bajazet’ (2022), Irish National Opera’s exploration of Vivaldi’s operas turns to what may have been more the mainstream of early opera in its time. Writer Pietro Metastasio’s drama ‘L’Olimpiade’ (‘The Olympic Games’), a story full of human shortcomings, is like a blueprint for every 18th-century opera. His libretto (the text) proved so popular it was set to music nearly 80 times in the century after publication, and tonight we see one of the first operas composed from this, by Antonio Vivaldi. In this touring production, directed by Daisy Evans and conducted by Peter Whelan, the Irish Baroque Orchestra is in its most concentrated form as a 10-piece ensemble. Their teamwork creates a brilliant web of sound, bringing out new colours, rhythms, and vibrant textures as the story unfolds.

Peter Whelan conducts the Irish Baroque Orchestra

That story involves two pairs of lovers—estranged, as ever, by circumstances and misunderstandings—as well as a separated father-and-son, setting up a resolution for all at the end. The unwitting turns of fortune that so nearly scupper that eventual point of arrival draw the characters through a sequence of situations, each of increasing tension and trauma. The circle, like a running-track, serves as a symbol throughout, with the stage picture a ring-shaped light suspended over the circular set. It is a good image: just as musical keys can track a journey, so too this circular path matches the cycle of passions of the baroque imagination, a similarly inter-related chain running from calm contentment to increasing levels of tension. The simple design of the set, two movable rostra on a circular track, on a mirrored floor, with costumes to hand so that the performers can remain on stage to slip in and out of character. This all adds to a sense of transparency and openness, evoking the comical street-theatre styles from this opera probably drew its inspiration.

Rachel Redmond (centre), flanked by Gemma Ní Bhriain, Sarah Richmond & Chuma Sijeqa (L), and Alexandra Urquiola, Seán Boylan & Meili Li (R).

As Olympian athlete Megacle, mezzo-soprano Gemma Ní Bhriain combines warm tone and smart delivery to good effect, with a punchy and witty presence on stage. Her (male) character is well-matched by ‘his’ beloved Aristea, sung by Alexandra Urquiola, whose darkly dramatic tone brings real force to the drama. Unfortunately, Megacle is unwittingly competing to win the big prize (Aristea herself) not for himself but for his best-buddy Licida – sung by countertenor Meili Li, last seen in Ireland in 2022 and here making a welcome return.

Gemma Ní Bhriain and Alexandra Urquiola (supported by Rachel Redmond and Sarah Richmond)

Not only does this situation mess with Megacle and Aristea’s delayed hopes for reunion, but it also upsets Licida’s actual admirer Argene (sung by another mezzo-soprano, the excellent Sarah Richmond). All these goings-on are observed by the two baritone roles—the king, Clistene (Chuma Sijeqa) and his attendant Alcandro (Seán Boylan)—and Licida’s tutor Aminta, sung by soprano Rachel Redmond. This is very much a piece of ensemble theatre, with all seven singers working together brilliantly as a team and drawing the audience through the complications of the story with energy and style.

Rachel Redmond (centre), with the full cast and Irish Baroque Orchestra

Rachel Redmond’s Aminta stands partly outside much of the drama as a kind of reflective narrator or commentator, and her brilliant high voice delivers some of the most spectacularly agile material of the evening. The two male voices bring an obvious contrast in tone, with Sijeqa’s king an arresting figure both vocally and physically, while Boylan’s jocular scenes suggest a fine comic artist in the making. While the surface details and plotting are typically, even wilfully, maddening (this is baroque opera after all), the pacing of the storytelling and the clear relationships between the characters make this an enjoyable work. As well as scenes of confusion and despair, there are also richly imagined moments of dream-like communion, such as the gently lit scene for Li’s sweetly-sung aria Mentre dormi (While you sleep).

Sarah Richmond and Meili Li (partly obscured)

This production is another triumph for Irish National Opera, and a worthy revival of yet another neglected work of early opera. As this production leaves Ireland for an already sold-out run in London at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre, we can only hope for more rediscoveries in the future, as well as continuing this vital collaboration between Irish National Opera and the Irish Baroque Orchestra.

Antonio Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade
Sung in Italian (libretto by Pietro Metastasio), with English surtitles
Co-Produced by Irish National Opera, Royal Opera House (UK) and Nouvel Opera Fribourg (Switzerland)
Director: Daisy Evans; Set/Costume Designer: Molly O’Cathain; Lighting Designer: Jake Wiltshire; Movement Director: Matthew Forbes; Conductor: Peter Whelan
Cast: Meili Li (Licida); Rachel Redmond (Aminta); Gemma Ní Bhriain (Megacle); Sarah Richmond (Argene); Alexandra Urquiola (Aristea); Chuma Sijeqa (Clistene); Seán Boylan (Alcandro)
Irish Baroque Orchestra

Photography by Ros Kavanagh