Pietro Metastasio's L'Olimpiade: A Textual Exegesis and an Analysis of the Role of L'Olimpiade in Olympic Games History

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Terminated in 393 by a decree of the Holy Roman Emperor, Theodosius I--at least according to one tradition--the Olympic Games would find institutional permanence again only at the end of the nineteenth century, in 1896, when the first of the modern Games, the brainchild of Pierre de Coubertin, were celebrated in Athens, Greece. Numerous historical forces conspired to produce a late nineteenth-century Zeitgeist receptive to the renovation of the Olympic Games, including the Greek War of Independence, the excavation of Olympia, the Philhellenic Movement in Europe, the emergence of national programs in physical education and international contests in sport, the Olympic revivalist movement nurtured in England by Dr. W. P. Brookes and in Greece by the patriotic romanticism of the poet, Panagiotis Soutsos, and the tireless work of Coubertin. (1) Historians have also identified a whole series of traditions and developments throughout the course of medieval, Enlightenment, and modern times that have contributed to the survival of the Olympic idea, including the English tradition of medieval peasant recreations and aristocratic tournaments, the "pseudo-Olympics," as Redmond calls them, (2) the professional records of historians, travelers, archeologists, cartographers, and paleographers, the prominence of ancient Greek ideas in the works of educational theorists and philosophers, and the growth of international sport itself. More recently, I have identified references in the world of literature, music, and dance that helped sustain the Olympic narrative throughout the late medieval and modern eras. (3) One of the most significant and previously unidentified figures in the interim years before the emergence of Coubertin's Olympic Movement was the famed Italian poet and dramatist, Pietro Metastasio, (4) whose libretto, L'Olimpiade, (5) set to music by as many as 50 composers, including Vivaldi, (6) Pergolesi, (7) and Hasse, proclaimed and celebrated the name, heritage, and prestige of the ancient Olympic Games throughout eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. (8)

One of the most prominent figures in the history of opera, and the single most important figure in the success of opera seria, (9) Metastasio wrote 27 dramma per musica, half of which received as many as 30 different musical settings and Artaserse, his most popular piece, close to 90 settings. From 1730 to his death in 1782, Metastasio served as Caesarian court poet in Vienna, and it was during the first decennium of his residence that he wrote some of his most highly acclaimed works, including L'Olimpiade (1733). (10) First performed in the garden of the Imperial Favorita to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Elisabeth Christine, consort of the Austrian emperor, Charles VI, L'Olimpiade was, as Metastasio commented to Saverio Mattei, "performed and repeated in all the theaters of Europe." (11) Excelled in popularity only by Artaserse and Alessandro nell'Indie, and as highly acclaimed as Demofoonte and Didone abbandonata, it is still considered one of his best works. One of Metastasio's most credible translators, Joseph Fucilla, calls L'Olimpiade "a little masterpiece," (12) and Bruno Brunelli, the editor of the complete works of Metastasio, remarks that "many have considered it the most perfect of Metastasio's dramas." (13) Translated as Der Wettkampf zu Olympia oder die Freunde, L'Olimpiade was last set to music in the nineteenth century by the German composer, Johann Nepomuk Poissl, and performed at the Munich Court Opera on April 21, 1815.

While I have previously identified Metastasio's L'Olimpiade and placed it within the context of the history of opera, most especially the history of opera seria, (14) I have not offered a textual analysis of Metastasio's famed libretto. Furthermore, while I have evaluated the role of L'Olimpiade in the story of the Olympic Games and sought to determine the influence of L'Olimpiade on Pierre de Coubertin, my analysis was not based on a textual exegesis or on grounded in a deeper appreciation for the moral principles that undergirded Metastasio's work. …


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