Olympias : an opera by Malcolm Hill, libretto by John Deethardt
316 B.C. Act One: An ancient Greek amphitheater. (Orchestra, a dancing circle. Skene. Periaktoi. Scaena ductile.)
Act Two : A Castle at Pydna (Modern: Kitros). The ramparts of a castle, upper level, with a throne room below. The orchestra is below the throne-room setting.
The opera is written with the travelling opera-group very much in mind. At its very smallest, the chamber opera could use just two soloists (Olympias, soprano, and Cassander, tenor) with four singers in the Chorus, taking other parts when needed. The “orchestra” is at minimum a string quartet, which might not have to travel with the company, but utilize a competent quartet in residence at the site of production. Non-vocal roles could be cast from the local population. The music is constructed in such a way that the four singers in the chorus could expand into eight or twelve; the string quartet could expand into a string ensemble, with additional doubling-lines for string basses, etc.
The primary forces of revenge, regret and redemption move Olympias through the drama. The opera has five scenes and an Epilogos, covering events in 316 B.C.E., during the wars of Alexander’s successors. The action takes place in the composite setting of an ancient Greek amphitheater. The story embellishes upon the sparse historical record.
The fate of Olympias, the facts and circumstances beyond her control, is being born a woman, a queen, daughter of kings, wife of a king, mother of kings, the legend of being a descendant of gods, in a patriarchal society with the social customs and practices of male monarchs. That is her heritage and her upbringing. But the Fates spin a thread for this royal person with knots of circumstance from capricious male monarchical behaviors of the day, and that proves to be the source of Ate’s intrusion into the course of her life. She finds it natural to commit murder to avenge murder, implemented by reckless impulse, and hubris. She ignores the justice of “all things considered”. She ignores the spirit and voice of the ancient mother, Gaia. Themis – that which is Right and Correct – is disregarded, the gods are dishonored. Boundaries and limits are overstepped. Disregarding Themis and taking moira into her own hands, the Furies, dread deities of divine vengeance, descend on her.
Years after her son, Alexander III (the Great) died in Babylon, Olympias, Queen of Epirus, nursed her antipathy toward Alexander’s appointed regent, Antipater, and vicariously satiated her lust for retribution against the clan that she believed had poisoned her son. She brooded on the past through Dionysiac revels that approached the level of Satyr plays.
Antipater appointed Polyperchon to be the guardian of the two kings, a situation caused by Alexander’s dying without an heir. Antipater’s son, Cassander, was insulted by being passed over for the appointment to be Antipater’s successor at Antipater’s death. Thus are sown the seeds of many years of wars and treachery by Alexander’s successors, who covet the power he had.
Polyperchon, the new regent, asked Olympias to become the guardian of the kings and again take the throne of Macedonia for he must go off to defend the realm from Cassander’s assaults. The upstart, Eurydice, who married one of the kings (the half-wit half-brother of Alexander, Philip Arrhidaeus), joined with Cassander. She invaded Macedon. Olympias confronted and defeated her.
When Olympias returned from her triumph, she had an appetite for more, having regained the arbitrary power of a monarch. She reveled in murderous impulses. A string of atrocities followed, and many deserted her.
She retreated to the castle at Pydna where she came under siege by Cassander. Her situation becomes hopeless. Her bargaining with Cassander fails. Cassander breaks the siege. Olympias surrenders. But she realizes she has been betrayed when his soldiers burst in to slay her, but she has the charisma to face them down. As they withdraw, she savors a triumph, but in the next instant she suffers a catastrophe of her own making and some measure of remorse.
Alone, grief-stricken, she achieves something beyond her regret, perhaps a small measure of redemption. Her fate descends on her, again through the agency of Cassander. Her bloody acts overtake her. She faces her death calmly.
The Epilogos completes the destruction of the line of Alexander. Cassander murders young Alexander IV and his mother, Roxanê.