Fruit From A Brief Life: Pergolesi's 'L'Olimpiade' An opera inspired by ancient Greece that gives a glimpse of what might have been — had its composer only lived past the age of 26.
NPR logo Fruit From A Brief Life: Pergolesi's 'L'Olimpiade'

Fruit From A Brief Life: Pergolesi's 'L'Olimpiade'

Hear An Introduction To 'L'Olimpiade'

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An early Olympiad depicted on a 5th-century BC black figure Greek vase: a scenario that inspired an opera by Pergolesi. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An early Olympiad depicted on a 5th-century BC black figure Greek vase: a scenario that inspired an opera by Pergolesi.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are plenty of great composers whose short lives make us wonder, wistfully, about the great music that might have resulted had they lived even a few months longer. Mozart, who died at 35, is one obvious example. Another is Schubert, whose life ended just short of his 32nd birthday.

Both of those men began composing in childhood, and were stunningly prolific, leaving behind large bodies of music despite their early deaths. There were others who started later and died earlier, and whose music, though remarkable, has been far less prominent. One of those is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, the composer of this week's opera.

Pergolesi was born in 1710 and was sent to study music at a Naples conservatory sometime in his early to mid teens. Aside from a few student compositions his earliest surviving score — a cantata — dates from 1731. Five years later, he was dead, at age 26.

The Hit Single

At the end of Act One, Megacle (soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez) has resolved himself to competing in the Olympics on behalf of Licida, but can't admit this to Aristea (soprano Roberta Mameli). He begins their duet by telling her to "think of me on your happy day."

'Ne giorni tuoi felice'

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The B Side

The second act ends with a furious scene for Licida (mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi), who rants about the long list of emotions afflicting him — "fury, revenge, affection, friendship, remorse, pity, shame and love" — and concludes with the aria "Gemo in punto e fremo" — "Now I weep and tremble."

'Gemo in punto e fremo'

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Yet during his brief lifetime, Pergolesi accomplished a great deal. His most famous work may be the influential comic intermezzo La serva padrona. It served as a model for the opera buffa style that later dominated Italian comic opera and was among the most popular musical theater works of the entire 18th century. In fact, the composer was so successful that after his death there was a thriving business in counterfeit Pergolesi — music written by others but released under Pergolesi's name, to make it more saleable.

All of that — the success of La serva padrona, and the confusion that still surrounds the spread of phony Pergolesi — has tended to overshadow the rest of the music he actually did compose. There's orchestral music, a celebrated body of sacred works — and opera, including L'Olimpiade, written just one year before the composer's death.

L'Olimpiade premiered in Rome early in 1735. Its libretto is by Pietro Metastasio, one of the most prolific librettists in history. L'Olimpiade was among his most popular stories — eventually, more than 50 composers made settings of it. Pergolesi's version was among the earliest, and for a time at least, it was the most famous of them all.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Pergolesi's L'Olimpiade from the beautiful Julisz Slowacki Theatre in the historic old town district of Krakow. The cast includes sopranos Roberta Mameli and Yetzabel Arias Fernandez as a pair of lovers plagued by family turmoil and misplaced loyalty, in a production featuring the Accademia Bizantina orchestra and conductor Ottavio Dantone.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'L'Olimpiade'

This opera's intricate plot line proves that simplicity was definitely not a requirement for successful opera librettos in the 1730s. The story revolves around two pairs of would-be lovers. Aristea is a princess, daughter of Clistene, a king who is about to host the Olympic games. She's in love with Megacle, a great athlete who is about to compete in the games. That seems all for the good, as Clistene has declared that his daughter will be the prize for the victorious competitor, and Megacle is a strong contender.

'L'Olimpiade' in this concert performance from the Juliusz Slowacki Theatre, Krakow. Tomasz Wiech/Krakow Festival hide caption

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Tomasz Wiech/Krakow Festival

'L'Olimpiade' in this concert performance from the Juliusz Slowacki Theatre, Krakow.

Tomasz Wiech/Krakow Festival

But there's another man who is also in love with Aristea. He's called Licida, and he and Megacle are close friends. In fact, Megacle owes his life to Licida, and has declared his unquestioned loyalty.

Aristea has no idea that Megacle is one of the athletes competing for the right to marry her. That's because, as a favor, Megacle has come to the games pretending to be Licida. So Aristea thinks that no matter which athlete wins, she'll be handed over to someone she doesn't love.

There's also a visiting princess on the scene called Argene, whose father wants her to marry Megacle. But she has come to town looking for the man she truly loves: Licida.

All of this is laid out in ACT ONE. Megacle arrives just in time, and agrees to compete in Licida's name. Aristea and Argene consult. When they realize that both of their love lives are about to go sour, Aristea asks Clistene to postpone the games, but he refuses.

With the competition about to start, Megacle finally learns that Aristea is the grand prize. But he still feels indebted to Licida and sadly resolves that he'll live up to his promise — to compete in Licida's name, instead of his own — even if it means losing the woman he loves.

As the act is ending, Aristea runs into Megacle, who hopefully asks if he has truly entered the games hoping to win her hand. By that time, Megacle is so confused and depressed that he's unable to give her an answer.

Who's Who

Roberta Mameli .................. Aristea

Monica Piccinini .................. Argene

Yetzabel Arias Fernandez .... Megacle

Mirko Guadagnini .............. Clistene

Cyril Auvity ........................ Aminta

Alessandra Visentin .......... Alcandro

Accademia Bizantina

Ottavio Dantone, conductor

In ACT TWO, the games are over — and the man calling himself "Licida" has won. Aristea is heartbroken, believing she has lost her chance to marry Megacle. Argene is angry, seeing that Licida seems to prefer Aristea.

As for Megacle — still pretending to be Licida — he feels honor-bound by his promise, so he's not ready to come clean. Clistene, Aristea's father, prepares to award the prize, and when Licida steps forward to accept, in Megacle's place, Clistene is obviously distressed — though we don't yet know why.

Aristea then approaches, resigning herself to be turned over to this Licida, whoever he is. Megacle takes her aside and finally tells her the truth — that he made an oath to give her to Licida.

Aristea faints dead away. When she wakes up, and finds herself with Licida, she calls him a brute. He finds himself in even more hot water when Argene shows up, and accuses Licida of betraying her.

Then Aminta, Licida's advisor, arrives with tragic news. Megacle has thrown himself off a cliff, into the sea, while screaming that his promise to Licida has killed him. At first, this angers Licida, who draws his sword and threatens Aminta. Then he thinks better of it, realizing that he has himself to blame. In a furious solo scene, he lists all the emotions afflicting him, and there are plenty. He rants about "fury, revenge, affection, friendship, remorse, pity, shame and love." As the acts ends, it's Licida's turn to consider suicide.

As ACT THREE opens, it turns out that Megacle survived his plunge into the ocean — though Aminta has to talk him out of trying the same thing all over again. Aristea, who loves Megacle, still thinks he's dead. So when she arrives on the scene with intentions to jump off the same cliff, she's relieved to find him alive and well.

We then hear from Alcandro, an advisor to Aristea's father, King Clistene. It seems that Licida, in his blind anger, has tried to murder Clistene — but was caught and has now been condemned to death. At this news, Megacle rushes off to rescue Licida.

The scene changes to the palace, where Clistene is getting ready for Licida's execution. There's something about the young man's face that makes him think twice, but the decision has already been made. Instead of begging for mercy, Licida has a final request — he wants to see Megacle one last time, and Clistene agrees.

After their meeting, the executioner is ready to proceed, and raises his axe. But he's stopped by Argene, who she says she still loves Licida, and is willing to die in his place.

At first, Clistene refuses to listen. But then he sees Argene's jewels, which were given to her by Licida, and he recognizes them. Long ago, Clistene had a son — Aristea's twin brother. But an oracle warned him that his son would try to kill him, so he gave the boy away. Now, Clistene realizes that Licida is the son he abandoned. The prophecy has come true, and Clistene has survived. Licida is spared, and Clistene blesses two weddings. Licida will marry Argene, and Megacle is finally awarded the prize he won at the Olympics: the hand of his beloved Aristea.