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Much admired in his lifetime for his more than a dozen operas, over 80 duet cantatas, madrigals, and religious music, Agostino Steffani’s musical reputation sank swiftly after his death. He saw no need to secure publication of many of his works in his early years; and in his later ones, when he was a bishop and highly regarded papal emissary, that would have been considered inappropriate. (His last operas weren’t even given under his name, but under that of his amanuensis, Gregorio Piva.) Though a great deal of excellent work by musicologist Colin Timms has brought a measure of attention back to Steffani, most of his operas remain in manuscript.
Nor have they been well served on disc. Orlando generoso (MDG 309 1566; Fanfare 33:3) and Alarico il Baltha (Concerto 2039; not reviewed in Fanfare, but a painfully provincial performance) are currently available, while excerpts from Enrico Leone (Calig 50855; Fanfare 11:1) were once in the catalog, as was an earlier recording of Niobe led by Newell Jenkins (Voce 59; 6:4). You may be able to find the out of print material there, given the whimsicalities of the Internet marketplace, though of all four recordings only Jenkins and his singers come within some distance of the voices and style required for their work. Having good intentions and baseline competence isn’t enough. A first-rate cast, both on the stage and in the orchestral pit, is required for these complex, difficult scores—and certainly to make the case for their largely neglected composer.
I saw an earlier version of this production of Niobe, Regina di Tebe in 2011, when it was the opera chosen that year to anchor the Boston Early Music Festival. In the past, the BEMF has issued these works on CPO usually two years after their production, but clearly something got in the way of that, this time. Instead of two years, it’s been four, and instead of CPO, the opera has appeared on the resuscitated Erato label owned by Warner Classics. The actual recording itself was made two years ago, in 2013, with some changes to the cast.
The original myth of Niobe illustrates what the Attic Greeks considered both an inappropriate display of disrespect to the gods, and inordinate public pride of family. The wife of Amphion, one of the Zeus-begotten twins ruling Thebes, she boasts that she had 12 children, where Leto, one of Zeus’s numerous conquests, only had two. Unfortunately for Niobe, those two are the gods Apollo and Artemis, who proceed to shoot divine arrows that kill all her children in front of her. Niobe is then turned into a statue, while a crazed Amphion defiles Apollo’s temple, and is slain by a final arrow.
The operatic plot derived from this is a fairly simple and straightforward affair, at least when compared to the soap opera-like plots and huge casts of some other entire evening’s entertainment of the period. Secondary elements to one side, Anfione is tired of ruling Thebes, since his one passion is playing his lyre. (This derives from another myth about Amphion and his twin brother, Zeto, who was written out of the opera.) A mortal, his ability to create music to extraordinary effect is his one god-like ability. He decides to transfer the control of state to his wife Niobe, and to recall from voluntary exile Prince Clearte to act as co-regent. Niobe hopes instead to replace Anfione with Clearte on both throne and bed, and conspires to get the credulous Anfione worshiped as a god so that he will cease all interest in Thebes and remain isolated in contemplation—which he does briefly at one point, late in act I, to magnificent effect. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) Enemies outside Thebes, however, enchant Niobe into having an affair with an invading general, thinking him to be the god Mars. When the illusion ends, she puts the blame not on her own pride and an enemy’s magic, but on the gods themselves, defiling their altars while proclaiming Anfione the only true deity. At that point, divine wrath strikes dead the children she’s inordinately proud of, Anfione commits suicide, and Niobe turns to stone.
Luigi Orlandi’s writing is concise, and clear. His portraits of Anfione, Niobe, and to a lesser extent the enemy general Creonte display deft, personal touches. The first two in particular come to life as deeply flawed but rounded and compelling personalities, in a way that most operatic characters do not. As a pre-Zeno opera Niobe embraces comic turns and tragic ones, earthy observations and idealistic visions, if with less frivolity and more gravitas than was common at the time on the stages of the Italian States. Steffani in turn was a musical conservative. His models were older Venetian ones, such as the operas of Cavalli, in which a fluid mix of recitative and aria had not yet given way to the stiffer formulae of the High Baroque. This may account as well for his use of chromatic dissonance at moments of great expressive tension, especially in recitative, though what scores he read or productions he saw that suggested such treatment must remain unknown.
His writing throughout the work operates at a high level. Nothing has the sense of being a throwaway—not even those arias of Nerea, the stereotypical comic nurse/confidante. Her scornful aria in act I about how women can’t resist men is mirrored exactly by observations in act III that men can’t resist women, set cleverly to the same music. Far loftier is Niobe’s final recitative and aria in act III, with a harmonic boldness that would have pleased Jacopo Peri and Micelangelo Rossi. Not a single aria, however, is without its bit of distinction; even the lesser ones, such as Tiberino’s “Tu non sai che sia diletto” and Polifemo’s “Fiera Aletto,” have central sections with unexpected modulations or impressively conceived madrigalisms.
But the most unusual selection in the opera, without question, is Anfione’s recitative and aria “Dell’alma stanca/Sfere amiche.” Elsewhere, his arias are, as in most cases with Baroque opera, set pieces venting one or two emotions, either in private reflection or to others—the equivalent of expressive prose, if on an exalted plane. In this scene, Anfione sings to the harmony he perceives in the planetary motion of the Universe, asking for their gift of internal peace. Steffani’s solution to depicting one who is divinely gifted with song is ingenious: a consort of viols hidden off-stage performing a downward-inclining ostinato, while the orchestral violins provide counter movement above, and Anfione’s voice floats delicately over it all. The harmonies are static, usually a repeating subdominant back to the tonic, creating a sense of impersonal stability, with unprepared harmonic shifts brought about by Anfione’s emotional states.
In the BEMF’s live performance, several children, roughly eight years old to early teens, each one solemnly carry a sphere representing a planet, either circle Philippe Jaroussky in increasingly complex patterns with slow, rhythmic tread or else turn glacially in place. He stands still, gesturing and conjuring in song, a magical bard around whom the universe is perceived at that moment to turn. It is an imaginative piece of staging to a brilliant piece of music. When I saw it, the audience sat stunned for several seconds after its conclusion, then literally howled its pleasure. There’s a souvenir of it on YouTube, professionally done but meant for in-house use only, so there’s no subtitling and the camera usually gets the full image of Anfione amid the circling planets from much too far away; but it does convey a sense of what all the shouting was about.
It took considerably longer than expected to get the album from Warner Classics. Lynn René Bayley reviewed the download in Fanfare 38:6; I just acquired the physical set, and find it slips in under the wire onto my 2015 Want List. For voice, agility, enunciation, style, and ornamentation, everybody in this Niobe comes out well, from very good to exceptional.
I would single out a few performers, though, for especial praise. Jaroussky’s scene I’ve already described supplies as fine an example of bel canto singing as any from the last century’s Golden Age, but he treats everything in the score with similar distinction. Karina Gauvin’s soprano I once referred to as “a diamond-bright voice with curiously darker chest tones mixed evenly throughout the upper register; a firmly disciplined sound with a quick vibrato, endless breath support, and little softness about it.” Amanda Forsythe, with a slightly sweeter, more lyric sound, the same quicksilver vibrato, and less Stygian darkness, also possesses the steel to realize Niobe, but seduces Clearte more sensuously. With Gauvin, you never forget the commanding will and pride, rather like a Greek Lady Macbeth. The part supports this view as well, and the mental collapse in her final scene is riveting. Forsythe in turn gets to display her variety of tone, extended range, and fearsome ability with figures to fine effect in act III’s “Chiudatevi miei lumi.” Finally, countertenor José Lemos does what no other singer has done in my memory with one of these travesti nurse parts: He actually sings it as written. There are no gasps, wild slides, seismic explosions on consonants, or off-center intonation for the sake of what someone, somewhere, apparently considers musical humor in the vein of such wildly successful 17th-century artists as Lou Costello.
No doubt co-directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs have something to do with this. Under their joint leadership the BEMF’s operas have never descended into musical anachronisms; and their continuo accompaniment remains a byword for texturally varied, rhythmically propulsive playing that never gets in the way of the singers. The BEMF Orchestra, under concertmaster Robert Mealy, is among the most disciplined and expert. Pacing throughout is excellent, with that sense of theater which is nearly impossible to approximate on records if you don’t first perform in front of live audiences. The sound is well balanced, and the libretto supplied with translations in English, German, and French.
Operatic ballet music at the Munich court of Elector Maximilian II Emanuel was sometimes handled by a work’s composer, and sometimes by the orchestra’s leader, Melchior d’Ardespin. That of Niobe, by d’Ardespin, has been lost, so the BEMF chose dances of his that survive from other operas—save the final Dance of Celebrating Soldiers, where they decided to use a chaconne from Steffani’s own Enrico Leone, presumably because at that point they didn’t want to break style. Steffani was a musical polyglot, adept in bringing French touches to his broad understanding of Italian styles, but D’Ardespin is reminiscent of Lully in the best sense of the word. A sinfonia introducing act II was made out of an aria from Steffani’s Amor vien dal destino, while a sinfonia for act III was built out of the theme and harmonic underpinning of Niobe’s act III aria, “Amami,” by Stubbs. Cuts that were made before the opera’s original premiere were apparently the basis for BEMF’s own pre-debut pruning, which were not specified in detail in the otherwise attractive liner notes.
I’ll finish this over-sized
review by stating David Johnson’s final comment of nearly 30 years ago to
that Enrico Leone recording mentioned above: “If there is anything behind
the Agostino Steffani legend, this recording does not prove it.” The BEMF
Niobe does prove it, in spades.