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L’Olimpiade review: Irish National Opera’s touring coproduction with the Royal Opera House feels surprisingly full-scale

Theatre: Meili Li, Rachel Redmond, Gemma Ní Bhriain, Alexandra Urquiola and Sarah Richmond star in Daisy Evans’s staging of Vivaldi’s opera


Siamse Tíre, Tralee

The numbers are small – seven singers, 10 players – and the staging minimalist, but Irish National Opera’s touring production of Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade, which it is staging with the Royal Opera House, in London and Nouvel Opéra Fribourg, in Switzerland, feels surprisingly full-scale rather than intimate and portable.

It’s to do with the INO creative team’s response to the baroque-opera blueprint, which toggles between the plot-pushing sung conversation of the recitatives and the pause for reflection of the arias. Director Daisy Evans and her team seem wholly in sync creating staging that mirrors or uncovers emotion and delicately identifies shifts in relationships. Their production feels organic and comprehensive in whatever it explores and communicates, yet neither busy nor distracting, and as near to self-explanatory as you can get with such a convoluted plot.

Clothing is important. Over a base of old-school white athletic gear – think fencing and Chariots of Fire – the singers variously slip into and out of Molly O’Cathain’s baroque-influenced cloaks, frocks and tunics as they alternate between their actual characters and a Greek chorus-style function that resonates with the original Olympic setting. So does her set’s dominant feature: like a single steep step from an amphitheatre, which the singers rotate or section to create continuously changing emphasis and perspective. All of this fruitfully capitalises on the time needed by the recitatives and long da capo arias.

The dynamism in staging is seamlessly matched by the expressive shifts of colour, focus and intensity in Jake Wiltshire’s lighting. Movement, directed by Matthew Forbes, is suffused with grace and poetry, whether depicting off-stage events such as the original back story and the Olympic Games themselves, or offering collective, symbolic responses to a singer’s words.


That convoluted plot, by Pietro Metastasio, was one that 18th-century audiences could not get enough of; nor could composers. In 1734, Vivaldi’s was already the second setting of L’Olimpiade, followed thereafter by a spectacular sequence of dozens more composers, stretching into the next century. It goes like this: Licida saves the life of his friend Megacle, who in return agrees to pose as Licida at the Olympics, where first prize is the king’s daughter. Megacle realises too late that the daughter is Aristea, his own lover, but feels honour-bound to stick to the plan. When he wins he therefore breaks three hearts: his own, Aristea’s and that of Licida’s former lover, Argene.

All the singing is good. But, for me, a really persuasive countertenor will always be a kind of miracle, so the Licida of Meili Li stands out, conjuring lyricism from his great resources of agility, dynamic control and freshness of tone. That said, for easeful sheer beauty and expressive instinct, the soprano Rachel Redmond is in a class of her own in the secondary role of Aminta. The mezzo-soprano Gemma Ní Bhriain rises to the special challenge of playing Megacle, originally written for castrato, and Alexandra Urquiola (Aristea) and Sarah Richmond (Argene) bring potent, understated emotional presence as the young women betrayed in love.

Conductor Peter Whelan injects his customary insight and vivacious yet precise energy into Vivaldi’s score, an energy colourfully translated into sound in the lively responses of the Irish Baroque Orchestra.

Irish National Opera’s production of L’Olimpiade is at the Everyman, Cork, on Tuesday, April 23rd, followed by dates in Waterford; Limerick; Letterkenny, Co Donegal; Navan, Co Meath; Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin; and Maynooth, Co Kildare (concert performance). The tour continues until June at the Royal Opera House, in London, and the Théâtre Equilibre, in Fribourg