Vivaldi comes to Volos for rare Baroque opera

On Saturday October 6, Volos will discover another type of Olympic Games. This would be Antonio Vivaldi’s opera, L’Olimpiade, written in 1734, which will be performed in an exceptional new theater – the refurbished building which was once the town’s old electric company. Baroque opera is rarely performed in Greece. The stakes are high and it is for this reason that the Center for Musical Theater in Volos invited the experienced director Maria Gyparaki from Paris, where she lives, to produce the opera. Our conversation with her was revealing. What would you say are the basic features of Baroque opera? Baroque operas are composed of a totality of things which cannot be separated from one other. They require a unison of all the arts – architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry – which are expressed through the music. This creates a many layered production which must be analyzed upon the stage and this is precisely where the great interest lies. In addition, the Baroque era held sway over a long period of time. Essentially, it began in the Renaissance and continued until it it died out in the 19th century. Are the librettos of Baroque operas as uninteresting as might appear at a first reading? Not at all. An entire literature of the Baroque exists which is bound up in the music and spirit of that era. The music and poetry are interdependent: They are both equally important. The librettos of Baroque opera have a logic to them, one which is not familiar to us today and for this reason we have difficulty understanding them. They need to be decoded. If someone does not have a cultural perception of the the Renaissance period, then they can’t progress. How ornate is the music of that era? Not at all. The music also has a logic to it. But, to the ears of listeners who are not familiar with it, it sounds false. In order to discover it, one must go beyond the surface. And in order to do this, one needs to have access to the right tools. Trained musicians who can read the instrumental as well as the vocal music are needed, and this music is different from the music of the 19th century. In Baroque, an orchestra which can tune its instruments to 440 vibrations a second isn’t needed, as it cannot be integrated with the cembelo and the viola de gamba which provide continual support. It’s like a 19th-century steam engine pulling a car. All these things are learned, however, just as one learns a foreign language. Obviously, if it is not read correctly, Baroque becomes tedious. Knowledge and consistency In the Baroque era, composers would write for specific singers. Do we have the right today to adapt these works to other voices and to what extent? I would say that we are obliged to adapt them! Baroque is a living musical form: Once we free it from its protective layer of time, it takes on other brilliance in the contemporary world. There is nothing, then, to prevent us from adapting the works to today’s conditions, as long as there are people with the tools to interpret the music correctly. Adaptation, however, does not mean downgrading. It requires great virtuosity, especially for the vocals. It is just like another language which we do not know. If someone describes it as out of date then they are being completely ignorant of the historical context. It’s like saying Caravaggio is out of date. In other countries, Baroque operas are produced either traditionally with period costume or with an attempt to identify the audience with the modern world. What is important is that a consistent line be taken from start to finish. I believe that in Greece, where no precedent exists, a production with many contemporary references, like those of Peter Sellers, for example, would be too much. We must first take a look at the repertoire and learn from it. For this reason, I consider Picci’s production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Athens Concert Hall to be well done. We can move forward from this point. I’m sure that there could even be minimalist Baroque. Anyone can do whatever they want, as long as they respect it. What are the distinguishing features of L’Olimpiade? There are around 12 or 13 L’Olimpiade pieces which are based on the same poetic text. This was, therefore, one of that era’s hits. As for this specific L’Olimpiade, I think that Vivaldi’s music is divine. The features of the plot are fairly standard for Baroque works and can be appropriated excellently today. There are the plot, the events and the intertwining human stories, the Olympic Games, perhaps a love affair, another impossible love affair between siblings, and the power of King Cleisthenes hanging over everything. How did you approach the work? The music encouraged me to give weight to the emotional aspects, with references to paintings of the period. I wanted to create a sense of chiaroscuro with the lighting. In addition, as happens often in Baroque, a number of the characters remain unaware of any particular situation. This is why I wanted to present them as puppets, which are manipulated by outside individuals. Baroque is in any case removed from reality. So I decided to give a leading role to the secondary characters. What would you mention to the public as incentives to come to Volos in order to see the production? First of all, I’d mention the old Volos electric company building, which is to open for the first time with this opera, and is of great interest. Moreover, this opera is a first for the Greek provinces. Anything of a similar nature that was performed before took place in Athens. I think that the National Opera and the Athens Concert Hall should shoulder some of the responsibility for a repertoire that takes a large part of its subject matter from ancient Greek mythology. There are dynamic voices in Greece, as well as many interesting young conductors. Experienced artists, such as Jenny Drivala, who has sung Baroque, could also get involved in this effort so that the knowledge can be passed on. If a few productions were held each year then the musicians and the audience would become more familiar with Baroque and its best features would further develop. L’Olimpiade Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade is being produced by the Volos Musical Theater Center in a new theater, once the home of the town’s electric company. Performances will be held on October 6, 7, 13 and 14. Musical direction is by Simeon Cogan, direction by Maria Gyparaki, set design is by Giorgos Vafias, the costumes by Frederick Olivier and the lighting by Maro Avrambou. The role of Aristea will be performed alternatively by Alexandra Papatziakou and Marina Fideli. Megacles will be played by Phillipe Zarouski, Agrine by Maria Katsoura, Amyntas by Carlos Espinoza, Lycinta by Margarita Syngeniotou and Alcandros by Pavlos Sampsakis.