Love vs Authority: The Timeless Battle, in an Opera

Opus Osm

Simona Houda-Šaturová, Aristea, and Sophie Harmsen, Argene, in "Olimpiade"

Czech Baroque composer Josef Mysliveček’s opera Olimpiade is a case of ‘doubles or nothing.’

First, the plot of the opera: It’s about the battle between love and authority when two kings choose the politically-correct mate for their children. And about two friends, Licida and Megacle, who must choose between desire and friendship.

And second, the staging of the opera: If it hadn’t been produced for two premiere nights only, and only with the State Opera’s “twin city” partners, it couldn’t have been staged at all. (See box.)

The Never-Ending Story

Pietro Mestastatio’s 1733 libretto, L’Olimpiade, enjoyed enormous popularity among 18th century composers, with 56 known settings. In part, this is due to the timelessness of its theme: the conflict of Eros and authority.

Authority sees Eros as disruptive; its passions confound both public and private lives. Love cares nothing for this; it is blind to authority.

The king of Crete has forbidden his adopted son, Licida, to marry Argene; he has decreed that she must, instead, marry his son’s friend, Megacle.

But Megacle has also been the object of royal willfulness. The king of Sicyon has refused to allow him to marry his daughter, Aristea.

As the opera opens, Sicyon’s king, in a surprising display of willfulness (and, perhaps, to secure for his line the best possible husband) decides to settle the matter. Aristea, his daughter, will be the prize for the winner of the Olympic games.

Did You Miss Olimpiade?
Olimpiade premiered May 2 and 5 at the Theatre of the Estates, with an extra performance May 6. Public relations director Petr Kozlíček of The Czech National Opera explains: “At this time no additional performances are planned. This production was planned as a special project made possible only through co-production with our partner theatres in Caen, Dijon, and Luxembourg.”

In those cities too, the opera is presented for only two evenings. “Unfortunately, Olimpiade is too complicated and expensive for the normal operation of any theatre,” Mr Kozlíček tells Opus Osm. “In the present day, it’s fairly common practice: Co-productions with a large number of theatres is the only way to implement ambitious projects,” he says, “unfortunately.”

Still, it’s a rather charming way to see an opera: catch it on one of two nights before it’s gone – or not at all.

The king of Crete’s son Licida forgets about his Argene; now he would like to compete in the games to win Aristea. Realizing his own inabilities, however, Licida persuades his friend, Megacle, to enter the lists for him.

When, however, Megacle realizes that the prize is his own beloved Aristea, he is torn between friendship and love. Licida, his friend, had once saved his life; but life without his Aristea is worthless.

In a series of lovely arias, Mysliveček brings out the emotional conflict of Megacle, playing it off the emotional blindness of his friend Licida. He sees and yet does not see his friend’s distress. The dual themes of refusal to see and repression work together. Which is more blind, authority or Eros?

Old Story, New Clothes
Rather than being a historical reconstruction, the staging and costuming of this production bring the opera to the present. The extremely simple set focuses on the space that surrounds the characters, while the costumes emphasize seeing and not seeing through cross-dressing.

Thus, two servants are dressed as the opposite sex. Given the history of using castrati in the 18th century, the fact that the male protagonists, Licida and Megacle, are also sung by sopranos is less surprising. To hear a rich baritone coming from someone wearing a skirt, or a soprano’s voice coming from a middle-aged man, confounds one sense with that of another.

Yet, watching these beautiful women with their remarkable voices impersonate males, still provides a transgressive frisson to the listener’s pleasure in Mysliveček’s tender melodies. — oo

– James Mensch

Photo Credits: Hana Smejkalová

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