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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

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