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

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

Santa Fe’s Crowd-Pleasing Strauss

With Die Fledermaus’ thrice familiar overture still lingering in our ears, it didn’t take long for the assault of hijinks to reduce the audience into guffaws of delight.

Santa Fe: Mad for Lucia

If there is any practitioner currently singing the punishing title role of Lucia di Lammermoor better than Brenda Rae, I am hard-pressed to name her.

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

Handel's Israel in Egypt at the Proms: William Christie and the OAE

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017.

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

A new La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Big birds are looming large at Glyndebourne this year. After Juno’s Peacock, which scooped up the suicidal Hipermestra, Chris Guth’s La clemenza di Tito offers us a huge soaring magpie, symbolic of Tito’s release from the chains of responsibility in Imperial Rome.

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

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):