A 2015 Top Ten Selection: Steffani’s Unique Niobe A Rare Treat

Review by: Robert Levine

Niobe

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Priest, diplomat, (most probably) spy, and composer Agostino Steffani travelled all over Europe during his lifetime (1653-1728), and this opera embraces a panoply of styles. Here is a composer who was not stuck, and who learned from his travels. Niobe is an Italian-language opera written for and first performed in Munich in 1688 when Steffani served the Elector of Bavaria. Steffani’s music and dramaturgy lie somewhere between Cavalli and Handel. Much like the former, but usually more developed and more graceful, recits melt into brief arias or ariosos; moving toward the latter, there are the occasional real if brief scenas/arias that delve into the characters’ feelings. And you’ll be dazzled by the positively Lullian, de Lalandian overture, with its martial trumpets and drums.

Precisely what instrumentation should be used is not made absolutely clear in the score, and co-conductors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette have opted for just 19 strings and a panoply of winds and brass. And their continuo section–the spine of the performance–is similarly varied, with Baroque guitar and harp, theorbo, harpsichord, organ, and viola da gamba. This opera disappeared for centuries and then–voila!–suddenly two separate opera companies, one in Boston and the other in London, discover it, perform it, and record it. I’ve opted to review the Boston recording, which presents almost an hour more of music than its London rival on Opus Arte. I’m not sure that’s a particularly good thing–there are plenty of dry spots and moments for minor characters that you won’t want to hear too often. But the singing on this exquisitely engineered set is simply ravishing, and in one major role, the difference is crucial.

It’s clear why Steffani, a priest, might choose this subject matter. The main story–the one that grips us emotionally and dramatically–presents a moral lesson. It concerns the arrogant Queen Niobe, who believes that her authority and 14 children make her more powerful than the goddess Lato. Her husband, Anfione, though vain, is far more philosophical: he hands his power over to Niobe and spends time in peaceful meditation of the music of the spheres. Niobe is punished for her self-importance by having her children massacred all at once; seeing this, the grief-stricken Anfione commits suicide and Niobe is turned to stone.

But Luigi Orlandini’s libretto (based on a tale from Ovid) introduces subplots and sub-characters: a military attack by Creonte, the Prince of Thessaly, who is aided by his advisor, Poliferno, a magician; Clearte, a courtier unrequitedly in love with Niobe; Tiresia, a high priest of Lato whose daughter, Manto, and Prince Tiberino are in love. And of course there is the obligatory nurse-in-drag, Nerea, who is wise and bitter and always a joy when she breaks in.

The entire show, stylish in the extreme, comes in at a few minutes under four hours, but I was rarely bored. I followed the libretto (the first of several times), and while there are many, many recits, they tend to be brief and to the point–even if the point is often about Clearte or Creonte, whose plights don’t particularly rivet the imagination. Each of them has nice arias to perform, and tenor Aaron Sheehan and countertenor Terry Wey are fine to listen to, the former’s haute-contre sounding decidedly suited for French repertoire. A more interesting role is the nasty Poliferno, sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg, who is as adept at coloratura and rapid singing as he is at cajoling, supposedly sincere utterances. And all of the nurse Nerea’s music is pointedly, animatedly performed by countertenor José Lemos, injecting fun into an otherwise not-fun arena.

The young lovers, Tiberino and Manto, actually have some fascinating, sensual music to perform. Both roles are strongly cast: tenor Colin Blazer and soprano Amanda Forsythe sing with bright, forward tone and convince us of their love, using vibrato wisely and to express their passion, which takes a couple of acts to be acknowledged. Manto’s father, Tiresia, is sung by bass Christian Immler, who intones with lofty manner, fine diction, and a surprisingly strong upper register. These roles easily could have seemed intrusive, but the sincerity and fine preparation that apparently went into these performances only adds to the opera’s luster.

The two leads are nothing short of magnificent. Karina Gauvin presents Niobe as the egocentric character she is but without exaggeration or any mustache-twirling. Like most of the others, she does not whiten her tone. Her agility serves her well in arias of rage (“Qui la dea cieca volante” in Act 2, “In mezzo allarmi” in Act 3), and her warm vibrato in her ill-placed lover’s lament “Amami, e vederai” in the last act brings with it such beauty of tone that she melts the heart. It would be easy to portray her as pure evil, but Gauvin is such a fine artist that she turns Niobe’s egotism into a flaw of tragic proportions. She is bettered only by the continually amazing Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione.

Despite his studiousness and pacifism, Anfione is a leader, and Jaroussky, even with his slim, almost-too-elegant tone, paints the full picture. He stands up to Niobe when he must, but where he is unmatchable is in the introspective moments–“Dell’alma stanca” and “Sfere amiche”–as he reflects on his weariness and the spheres, and staggeringly, in his suicide aria, a painful four minutes accompanied by slithering, chromatic strings that’s filled with dissonances that Gesualdo might embrace. The glimmer in his voice is used here not only to be beautiful but to express suffering–he flutters over a goat trill momentarily, his intakes of breath weaken by the moment–and he musters strength to denounce the gods for about 15 seconds of furious coloratura in mid-scene.

I’m not claiming that this is a re-discovered masterpiece, but it is unique in its uncategorizability and it really must be heard. It is always interesting for its unpredictability, but the last 20 minutes cements our inclination that Steffani is a genius and tempts us to begin the first CD again. The cast of the Opus Arte set is not as good, save for Veronique Gens in the title role, who comes close to the glories of Gauvin and Iestyn Davies, who outsings Terry Wey. The marvelous Amanda Forsythe is again Manto. Jacek Lasczkowski, interesting artist though he is, cannot really be spoken of in the same sentence with Jaroussky. Highest recommendation.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

  • Karina Gauvin, Amanda Forsythe (soprano); Philippe Jaroussky, Terry Wey, José Lemos (countertenor); Christian Immler, Jesse Blumberg (baritone), Colin Balzer (tenor)
  • Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs

  • Erato - 0825646343546
  • CD

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