Agostino Steffani – hardly the name on everyone's lips, even among the dedicated coterie of baroque enthusiasts. A contemporary of Corelli, his operas fit stylistically somewhere into the gap between Cavalli and Handel, relishing the last evocative flourishes of rusticity before baroque was polished and refined into its established forms. Emerging from musicology thesis and into dancing life, Steffani's Niobe Regina Di Tebe is a delight and a wonder. On the strength of the Royal Opera's seductive new production it seems hopeful that the composer's small catalogue might find its way into the repertoire, finally offering some competition to Handel whose stage monopoly has been virtually unchallenged until now.
The opera takes rather unpromising basis in the tale of Niobe, familiar both from Homer and Ovid – whose Metamorphoses provide its source. Structured in the familiar operatic ‘pride comes before a fall' variety, as programme notes helpfully observe, it tells of the nasty, brutish and short career of Niobe, adored wife of Anfione, King of Thebes.
Wishing to escape the cares of the world, Anfione appoints his wife as Regent to rule with the help of Clearte (who, like every man in the opera, secretly adores her). But statesmanship proves challenging when the magician Poliferno decides to revenge himself on the ruling family, persuading young Thessalian Prince Creonte to seduce Niobe and overthrow her husband. Providing the obligatory rustic subplot are innocent priestess Manto (daughter of blind seer Tiresia) and her princely suitor Tiberino, son of the King of Alba. Insults are hurled at the Gods, arrogance is overweening, and suddenly we have a tragedy on our hands.
So far, so standard baroque. The real and unexpected joy of the work is its score, with its astonishing palette of orchestral colours, fluid musical structures, and melodies that creep quietly into your ear and take up comfortable residence. Championed elegantly from the pit by the opera's discoverer Thomas Hengelbrock and his Balthasa Neumann Ensemble, the three-hour score never suffered from the final-act restlessness syndrome that so blighted last season's Tamerlano.
We opened with the characteristic lilt and sway that proclaim a great period ensemble, the understated gestures of strings and woodwind set against a raucous cacophony of period brass and timpani (which included, I'm informed, the rare delights of accordion-like creature the regal, whose raspy wheeze became the dominant colour of the baddies' recitative passages.) There's something wonderfully anarchic about hearing tambourines starring alongside strings in an opera orchestra, and the timp-heavy scoring drove proceedings forward throughout, leading our ears through the maze of shifting dance-rhythms and tempi. Yet there were meditative moments too. Anfione's two large-scale set-piece arias contemplating heaven and earth provided delicate pause, their textures (particularly the tender recorder duet of Act II's offering) prefiguring the fragile warmth of ‘Gia l'ebro mio ciglio' (with its viola duet) from Handel's Orlando.
Visually the production recalls Francisco Negrin's Orlando for the Royal Opera, all silken masque and symbol, framed within Raimund Bauer's gently anachronistic and wittily self-aware set. If at times it bears resemblance to a Docklands warehouse conversion, then its flexibility and allusive geography redeem it. There's a particularly magical moment in Act III where the globes that have become something of an idée fixe return as giant floating balloons, rising and falling with measured grace behind a gauzy curtain, as well as an effective (if slightly seasick) moment with a glitterball that provide the iconic visuals of the production. Mention should also be made of some iconic aural moments – the bizarre oil-slick oozing noises that accompanied every entrance of Poliferno and his evil creature become something of a running joke, adding some much-needed wit to this rather lumpen villain.
By baroque standards Steffani's score calls for a large ensemble cast, balancing his distribution of arias to allow the story to retain its pace. Part of the appeal to a contemporary audience is the sheer fluidity of his musical forms, whose structure turn on a sixpence, slipping from arioso into recitative, and aria into duet without pause. The result is far freer than Handel, who for all his genius in manipulating the da capo convention still remains devoutly wedded to its architectural skeleton.
Yet there was one flaw in this diamond of a production, and it was a significant one. Jacek Laszczkowski as Anfione had been billed as the starring draw, a true male soprano capable of taking on this astonishing castrato role. What we got was a woolly and unfocused noise (with not only consonants but discernible vowels completely jettisoned) in the lower registers, a vast gully of a break at either end of the voice, and a tendency to sit painfully under the note. There were moments at the very top of the voice where things started to make sense, but these were certainly not many or beautiful enough to justify the rest.
Unfortunately Laszczkowski was also up against the formidable countertenor talents of Iestyn Davies (Creonte), whose coloratura is reliably superb, and more restrained, but no less secure Tim Mead (Clearte). Making an implausibly beautiful and sweetly-sung villainess was Veronique Gens. Her Niobe was a sort of mythological Marie Antoinette – fond of kicking the odd priest or priestess, but generally more foolish than actively evil. There are a surprising lack of big arias in this part, but she made much of the gentler material she did have: her Act III love duet with the disguised Creonte was of almost Monteverdian eroticism, and her dying aria was poised and gloriously produced.
Among the supporting roles, Amanda Forsythe made a charmingly light-voiced Manto (though I wonder how audible she was up in the amphitheatre), and was balanced by the rather rustic singing of Lothar Odinius's Tiberino and the acquired taste of Bruno Taddia's highly characterised Tiresia. Providing the obligatorily world-weary nurse was Delphine Galou (Nerea), who sang perhaps a bit too prettily for this essentially comic role, failing to extract all its potential.
Niobe Regina di Tebe is a welcome surprise of an opera – generous of melody, swift of plot, and – in Lukas Hemleb's production – profoundly entertaining. I hope those who took advantage of the Royal Opera's hugely discounted tickets will spread the word and make the opera the hit it so deserves to be. I for one will be queuing up for a second visit.
Photos: Bill Cooper
Niobe runs well into October at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
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