The 2011 Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) got off to a rousing start on June 12 with a lavish production of Agostino Steffani’s 1688 opera, Niobe, Regina di Tebe at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. An impressive number of individual and institutional sponsors have been lined up for every aspect of this undertaking, and its resulting exceptional quality is visible and audible throughout. Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs are music directors as well as playing theorbo and baroque guitar, and Gilbert Blin is the stage director. An outstanding international cast is joined by the unsurpassed BEMF Orchestra and the fine PALS Children’s Chorus, and the superb singing and playing is complemented by the terpsichorean pleasures offered by the BEMF Dance Ensemble.
Steffani is ripe for rediscovery: most of his operas survive in manuscript only and haven’t been performed for over three centuries. Nonetheless, he was a cosmopolitan musician, highly regarded in his day, having studied and/or worked in Italy, France, and, for the largest part of his career, in Germany. Something of a triple threat, he was prominent as composer, diplomat, and Roman Catholic clergyman. The music of Niobe is wonderfully rich and varied; at times it recalls earlier compatriots, particularly Monteverdi, and at others employs daringly advanced harmony comparable to passages later composed by J.S. Bach. Only Niobe’s dance music has not survived though it has been established that it was composed by Frenchman Melchior d’Ardespin. Choreographers Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante have done an commendable job of re-creating both music and choreography, using other music by d’Ardespin and Steffani, for the numerous pure dance sequences.
The piece opens with a fairly standard-issue French overture, brimming with dotted rhythms, until the fast section begins and drums and antiphonal trumpets are suddenly, thrillingly added to the mix. When the curtain was raised on Thebes’s King Anfione and his court, the set and costumes drew immediate applause. We are quickly introduced to several of the cast. Anfione seems an enlightened ruler, about to lay down his power and let Niobe reign in his stead. The soon-to-be queen’s nurse, Nerea, suspects what Anfione does not: that the regent Clearte has amorous feelings for his charge and even that she might return them. As Anfione, Philippe Jaroussky, belonging to the relatively rare vocal category of sopranist countertenor, cuts a regal figure and sings with sovereign command (in every sense). Soprano Amanda Forsythe is equally impressive as Niobe. As Clearte, tenor Kevin D. Skelton sings handsomely and makes clear the initial struggle within the character between his desires and his duty. Countertenor José Lemos as Nerea takes full advantage of being the central comic figure of the opera but also loses no opportunity for vocal display.
The next scene introduces Theban maiden Manto, menaced by a bear in the woods, and Alban Prince Tiberino, out hunting and fortunately on hand to save her by capturing and taming the bear. Soon after the rescue Manto’s father arrives, the prophet and priest Tiresia whom Jove has given clairvoyance to compensate for his blindness. As the maiden, soprano Yulia van Doren makes an ideal ingénue, strikingly beautiful and singing with a lovely light touch, excellent agility, and a luscious sound, but also with a generous variety of colors when desired. Tenor Colin Balzer makes a fine counterpart for her and sings elegantly and ardently while baritone Charles Robert Stephens has convincing gravitas as the experienced father-figure, and authority as well as outrage as soothsayer/priest.
Finally, we meet Poliferno, Prince of Attica and magician, and Creonte, son of the King of Thessaly but under the control of Poliferno. They arrive from above in the first notable piece of stage machinery: a dragon with glowing red eye, amidst clouds. The craven conjurer has nursed a grudge against Anfione for a long time and plans to use Creonte to exact his revenge. Enjoying the juicy villain role, baritone Jesse Blumberg sings a vigorous, martial aria urging Creonte (and his soldiers) to attack Anfione and take Niobe for his own. Somewhat later, countertenor Matthew White gets his own stirring vengeance aria as Creonte, though he is little more than a mouthpiece for Poliferno at this point. In sharp contrast of mood is his delectable love duet with Niobe, both under the magician’s spell.
Niobe and Anfione, the two leading characters, have the greatest range of music — contemplative, amorous, brilliant, and (at the end) poignant. At the opening of Act III, the bewitched Niobe and Creonte continue to believe they are divine as well as in love with each other. Indeed, Niobe sings an exquisite aria to Creonte, beautifully collaborating with theorbo, baroque guitar, and baroque harp. Later, after learning the truth but still wanting to believe in her divinity, she goes off the deep end for a time in a combination mad scene/vengeance aria; Forsythe gave a spine-tingling account. Although through most of the opera, Niobe is quite unsympathetic, due to her enormous hubris, she is horribly punished near the end by the killings of all her children. Her grief is so great she cannot even weep but instead gradually turns to stone during her final aria. With poignant singing Forsythe managed to make us feel a glimmer of sympathy for her at her end.
Anfione is celebrated for his musical abilities so it is only fitting that his music be especially wonderful. In Act I he sings praises of the music of the spheres. Jaroussky here demonstrated marvelous control in his expressive shading of vibrato and dynamics. (There was also some delightful, apt choreography here: children carrying globes of various sizes in carefully planned orbits around the monarch.) In Act II, Tiresia clues Anfione in to what is really going on, reawakening his fighting spirit. At this point the infuriated king launches into the most spectacular aria in the opera, declaring vengeance on Poliferno and Creonte. The brilliance of Jaroussky’s coloratura was astounding and the virtuosity of the accompanying continuo equally so. Much later when he realizes that his children have all been killed due to Niobe’s pride, Anfione stabs himself and dies over the course of his final lament aria. This has not only the commonplace descending chromatic bass line but an answering ascending line, tightening the emotional screws in the singer’s moving performance.
When Creonte takes the Theban throne, he tries to heal wounds by punishing Poliferno, blessing the union of Tiberino and Manto, and forgiving Nerea for her earlier foolish machinations. He sings a final florid aria in praise of destiny, and the opera ends with a celebratory dance in which virtually all the orchestra’s instruments, standard and exotic, get a final “bow.”
A final word of praise is due all the technical crew whose meticulous planning made this immense production go off without a hitch. The multi-layered sets worked well and had an authentic period feel while making efficient use of the somewhat limited stage and wings space. The multiple flying apparatuses (dragon and clouds) convincingly conveyed characters “from sky to earth” and certainly heightened the drama! I fervently hope that this triumph will lead to other Steffani opera productions even though they will be hard put to match the standard set by this one. Recommended wholeheartedly!