Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia deserves congratulations on yet another coup. The company co-commissioned Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon based on Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s celebrated Civil War epic.

Christian Gerhaher Wolfgang Rihm Wigmore Hall

For their first of two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber devised an interesting programme - popular Schubert mixed with songs by Wolfgang Rihm and by Huber himself.

Götterdämmerung in Palermo

There are not many opera productions that you would cross oceans to see. Graham Vick’s Götterdämmerung in Sicily however compelled such a voyage.

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its latest production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) featuring Renée Fleming /Nicole Cabell as the widow Hanna Glawari and Thomas Hampson as Count Danilo Danilovich.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Vèronique Gens as Niobe [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of the Royal Opera]
26 Sep 2010

Niobe, Regina di Tebe, Royal Opera

The Royal Opera is hardly renowned for its commitment to baroque opera, and even the great Handel still gets short shrift in his adopted city’s major house.

Agostino Steffani: Niobe, Regina di Tebe

Niobe: Vèronique Gens; Anfione: Jacek Laszczkowski; Manto: Amanda Forsythe; Creonte: Iestyn Davies; Tiberino: Lothar Odinius; Clearte: Tim Mead; Nerea: Delphine Galou; Tiresia: Bruno Taddia; Poliferno: Alastair Miles. Royal Opera House, London. September 23rd.

Above: Vèronique Gens as Niobe
br/>All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of the Royal Opera

 

So it was with some surprise that Niobe, Regina di Tebe by Agostino Steffani (first performed 1688) hit the computer screen some months ago as Covent Garden’s 2010/11 baroque offering. Many could be forgiven for muttering “what…by whom?”

NIOBE-BC20100920258-LASZCZK.gifJacek Laszczkowski as Anfione

Reading the ROH notes, it becomes clear that it was a combination of financial expediency (a useful co-production with a recent successful track record) and genuine appreciation of the music revealed in the 2008 revival at the Schwetzingen Festival that encouraged the Royal Opera to add its considerable clout to the 2010 revival performances around Europe. Leaving aside the question of why Steffani — an admirable polymath of his time, but hardly the baroque’s greatest opera composer — we must at least be thankful that the ROH has been prepared to put some time and effort into converting what was an essentially small scale festival production into something that fits the bigger stage.

Even more important than this stage adaptation is the quality of the music and story-telling: and for this we must thank the energetic and committed Thomas Hengelbrock who as director of the period-instrument Balthazar-Neumann Ensemble has been the driving force behind the production from 2008 with his own critical edition. The same production team that enjoyed such success at Schwetzingen are responsible for the “hard gloss & soft fabric” look of the piece that on occasion seems to hark back to some of Pierre Audi’s early works with the Monteverdi operas. Exaggerated richly-hued baroque flounces and golden breast plates contrast with mirror surfaces and monumental palatial interiors. There are some very effective visual ideas that complement the richness of the scoring and the mythological elements of the libretto — be prepared for costumed fanfares, huge helium balloons and some very realistic fire effects — Steffani, with his taste for stage machinery and loud bangs, would have approved.

Mead_Niobe_ROH.gifTim Mead as Clearte

The story itself is a re-telling of the events leading up to the destruction of the proud queen Niobe of Thebes as told by Ovid — a tale of love, desire, pride and hubris that ends in tragedy - yet in true baroque fashion it also confirms the ascendancy of love and honour. Niobe, soprano Veronique Gens, is left to rule Thebes as her husband Anfione, male soprano Jacek Laszczkowski, goes off on a sort of regal “retreat” — a bad move on his part as Niobe has a would-be lover in the form of courtier Clearte, countertenor Tim Mead, and another in the form of foreign prince Creonte, countertenor Iestyn Davies. There is the almost-ubiquitous malevolent magician of these times, Poliferno, bass Alastair Miles, plotting in the background. Add to this the amorous sub-plot of two lesser characters, priestess Manto, soprano Amanda Forsythe, the daughter of High Priest Tiresia, baritone Bruno Taddia, and prince Tiberino, tenor Lothar Odinius, and season with a comic nurse character Nerea, contralto Delphine Galou, and you have a baroque compôte to rival any of Handel’s or Vivaldi’s. Where it differs is that here there is no lieto fine and the final scenes are a chilling reminder of how the gods punish the proud and foolish. Dead children are never an easy call for opera, and the emotional punches are not pulled. The very final scene, sung by the newly-enthroned Creonte, is both sternly optimistic but also ambiguous.

NIOBE-BC20100917152-MILES&G.gifAlastair Miles as Poliferno and Véronique Gens as Niobe

The quality of the vocal writing matches the inventiveness of the music which seems to hover, musicologically, somewhere between Cavalli and early Handel. The recitatives are lyrical, the arias and duets constantly change form and texture with no one vocal style predominating. There is no aria longer than five minutes and the da capo form in its full Handelian sense is missing: this helps to drive the action forward and several set-piece arias are interrupted by another character. The orchestration is equally complex and thoroughly fascinating in its detail and richness; often a character will be assigned his or her “own” obbligato instrument - such as the nurse Nerea who sings several slightly cynical or world-weary arias with some virtuosic recorder playing echoing her complaints. Anfione is often accompanied by the smaller strings and viola da gamba. Under the confident and stylish direction of Hengelbrock, his expanded orchestra gives an object lesson in how to transfer what was an intimate festival performance in 2008 into a major house display in 2010.

The singers themselves — also mainly from the Schwetzinger production — sound and look comfortable in their music. Niobe is a perfect role for the statuesque figure and warmly lyrical soprano of Gens; she convinced totally as her voice moved from purring eroticism to agonised despair. Her husband Anfione, the reluctant king, was equally believable in the hands and voice of Laszczkowski whose male soprano worked best when he stopped the action with heartfelt prayers for harmony, love and a bit of peace and quiet. Occasional tenorial lapses were a slight problem at the bottom of his soprano range, but there is no denying the ethereal effect of his top. Of the countertenors, Iestyn Davies had the least to do vocally, but did it best. He continues to mature vocally and dramatically and his voice is an effective mix of clarity, volume and pleasing tone. Tim Mead perhaps gave more on the acting front and was a convincing besotted lover. Alastair Miles, who makes something of a habit of playing evil magicians, was nicely devious with his reliable bass as agile as ever. Is there a better baroque Mr Nasty? Delphine Galou (Nerea), Amanda Forsythe (Manto), Bruno Taddia (Tiresia) and Lothar Odinius (Tiberino) all pleased without quite approaching the levels of the principals; Forsythe has a pretty, light, soprano that struggled in the large space whilst Galou’s lightish contralto carried more easily to the back of the house.

NIOBE-BC201009210557-GENS&D.gifVéronique Gens as Niobe and Iestyn Davies as Creonte

Although there was not, unsurprisingly, a full house on first night, there was a noticeable lack of empty seats after the one interval, which is always a good sign with a “new” opera. Most of the audience seemed caught up with the excellence of the music and visual spectacle and were generous in their applause at curtain call. If Gens and Davies just about won the applause-stakes for the singers, then they were both beaten by a short head by the superb players of the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble in the pit. Thomas Hengelbrock looked both relieved and delighted, and so he should. The production runs to the 3rd October before transferring to Luxembourg. Recommended.

Sue Loder © 2010

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):