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A Ravishing Surprise

The Royal Opera House
09/23/2010 -  & September 25, 27*, 29, October 1, 3, 2010
Agostino Steffani: Niobe, regina di Tebe

Véronique Gens (Niobe), Jacek Laszczkowski (Anfione), Iestyn Davies (Creonte), Tim Mead (Clearte), Lothar Odinius (Tiberino), Amanda Forsythe (Manto), Alastair Miles (Poliferno), Delphine Galou (Nerea), Bruno Taddia (Tiresia)
Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, Thomas Hengelbrock (conductor)
Lukas Hemleb (production), Raimund Bauer (set design and lighting), Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (costumes), Thomas Stache (choreography)

A. Miles & V. Gens (© B. Cooper/Royal Opera House)

One is not surprised to find an unknown appearing at a major international opera house. But it's an unknown artist whom we expect to encounter for the first time, not an unknown opera, let alone one by a unknown composer. So there was an added element to pleasure and excitement that one always feels upon entering the Royal Opera House. The work and its composer could not have been better served. A combination of a splendid conductor and his equally splendid period ensemble, marvelous singers, and a whimsical production, during our rather long evening, never failed to delight.

Agostino Steffani was born in Italy in 1654, As a boy, he sang in a choir and subsequently joined the church. He spent much of his life in Germany, as court composer in Munich and then as Kapellmeister in Hannover. This appointment explains the somewhat curious fact that many of Steffani's manuscripts are in London, taken there by the Elector of Hanover when he became King George. In time and in style, Steffani stands between Cavalli and Handel. Despite his being almost completely unknown --- at least until this production appeared, first in Germany and now in London, – he was a prolific composer, writing music in a wide variety of genres. Niobe regina di Tebe, his fifth opera, was the last of his operas written for the court in Munich.

Steffani’s librettist, Luigi Orlandi, based his version of the story on the cautionary tale of the proud and foolish Niobe, queen of Thebes, on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Orlandi's plot is rather spare, but the story line is augmented by two subplots, one with the obligatory young, thwarted lovers. The first features Manto, daughter of the priest Tiresia, and Tiberino, a prince. The other chronicles the dastardly doings of Poliferno, a charismatic and hilariously over the top magician. When Niobe's husband, Anfione (our male soprano), goes off to the Palace of Harmony for some introspection time, he appoints his wife as Regent. The beautiful Niobe is then pursued by two would-be lovers (our countertenors), a courtier (Clearte) and a prince from afar (Creonte). A deliciously ironic commentary on the proceedings is provided by the nurse, Nerea.

Steffani's music is extraordinarily varied in so many respects – orchestration, texture, structure of the arias, phrase lengths rhythms, and tonality. He also had a gift for lovely melodies, particularly those sung by Anfione, whose death scene was especially poignant. The cast was exceedingly strong. Veronique Gens sang with lovely lyricism and she portrayed the passionate and willful Niobe with great psychological nuance.

There was certainly as much curiosity about Jacek Laszczkowski, the Polish male soprano, as there was about the opera and its composer. Steffani gave Anfione wonderful music – plaintive and immensely moving as he yearned for the wife he had lost. By its very nature, Laszczkowski's voice possesses an aura of strangeness. He sang with an other-worldly ethereal sound, using his clear, marvelously flexible voice with its blooming top, albeit without much of a bottom, to great psychological effect. Both had powerful and melodically memorable death scenes.

Iestyn Davies was a superb Creonte, singing with a clear mellow rich voice. He showed off fine comic instincts and an almost acrobatic prowess, particularly in his scenes with Alistair Miles' Poliferno. Miles sang with a powerful, resonant voice and a campycharacterization, especially his interactions with Davies’ Creonte, which included pop-up appearances in the midst of the captivated audience.

The rest of the cast did not let Steffani down.Tim Mead was an ardent and lyrical suitor, Amanda Forsythe and Lothar Odinius a lovely and ardent pair of lovers. Forsythe sang with great sweetness conveying the vulnerability of youth. Bruno Taddia, as her father, was in fine form. Delphone Galou's commentary on the proceedings was a delight.

The Royal Opera imported this elegant yet whimsical production from the Schwetzingen Festival, where it was staged two years ago. Obviously changes in scale were needed for this move to a larger venue. And the production team got it just right with Lucas Hemleb's creative and imaginative production, Raymund Bauer's stark staging, and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer opulent costumes,

The conductor, Thomas Hengelbrock, has a special interest in this opera having himself prepared the critical edition of the score. He and his terrific ensemble have brought their newly discovered treasure to Covent Garden in their first appearance in the house. He conducted with spirit and elan. Given the brilliance of their performance and the audience response, I am sure they will be back.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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