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

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

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.

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.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.