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Fanfare Magazine: 38:6 (07-08/2015) 
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Reviewer: Lynn René Bayley

Composer Agostino Steffani (1653–1728) is one of the many whose music has been revived in recent years by Cecilia Bartoli, in this case in her 2010 album Mission (Decca 1742002), a disc that included three arias and two duets (also with Philippe Jaroussky) from this opera. And now here is the complete work, recorded in the studio after a series of live performances in 2011 by the Boston Early Music Festival. The booklet tells us that the recording “restores some material omitted in the live performances.” Specifically, the performers’ primary source was the autograph score in Vienna, but bolstered by “additional details and corrections gleaned from manuscripts in Schwerein and Munich.” These extra sources corrected “articulations, text underlay, or unclear pitches” in the original score.

Composed in 1688, when Purcell was still alive and well, the opera combines many influences from both French and Italian operatic styles of the day, particularly in its inclusion of many dances, but it also includes some very interesting music that was certainly not the norm for its place and time. It was the first of Steffani’s operas to be based on Greek mythology, in this case centering on the legends of Anfione and Niobe, the joint rulers of Thebes. He was the son of Jove, she the daughter of Tantalus. Like the real-life Steffani, who was a composer, priest, and diplomat, Anfione combined music and politics to “render human and civil,” so the booklet tells us, “the uncivil savagery of the people, so that he merited the attributes not of man, but of a divinity.” After years of ruling, Anfione grows weary and transfers his power to Niobe. The plot is your typical convoluted Baroque opera story involving a number of outside characters who become involved: Tiberino, “a prince from a faraway land” (I guess they had lots of them running around in ancient Greece, none of them paying taxes), is on a quest for fame and glory (yeah, right). While hunting he rescues Manto, a young maiden in distress (you just knew there had to be one of those, right?) who gratefully introduces Tiberino to her blind father, Tiresia. Meanwhile the magician Poliferno has cast a spell on Creonte, the ruler of Thessaly, which causes him to think he is in love with Niobe. (Apparently Poliferno also has an axe to grind with Niobe.) So, while Anfione is busy studying “the harmony of the spheres” (Lydian, Mixolydian, or Dorian mode?), Prince Clearte—who was summoned by Anfione to transfer his power to Niobe—shows up with news that Creonte’s army has invaded Thebes. Anfione calls on his dad Jove, who magically constructs giant walls that rise and encircle the city to protect it. Niobe, impressed by her husband’s cool powers, asks the people to worship him as a god, but the High Priest, Tiresia (remember him?), is appalled and calls it blasphemy. Niobe, who apparently took martial arts training, throws the old guy to the ground and forces him to worship her hubby. Manto and Tiberino arrive, find the old man hurt and alone, and help him get some aid. They also “explore their feelings for one another” and fall in love.

Poliferno magically hides himself in a cloud while the now-emboldened Thebans ward off the Thessalian invaders. Clearte also falls in love with Niobe. Apparently she’s the JLo of her time, as no one can resist her. Things get even more convoluted from here, but apparently Niobe becomes attracted to Creonte, disguised as the god Mars, and gives herself up to sexual oblivion. Anfione tells her that she’s been duped, which doesn’t make her very happy. She blames the gods for her humiliation and swears revenge. This, it turns out, was not a good idea, because the gods are a lot tougher and more magical than either Poliferno or her husband. Eventually Latona, Diana, and Apollo descend from above to destroy the walls around Thebes and to kill Niobe’s children. She cries out at the destruction but is apparently so grief-stricken that she can’t even cry. She just turns to stone. The now-victorious Creonte comes into Thebes, gets rid of Poliferno, marries Tiberino to Manto, and becomes the new king of the now joint city-state of Thebes and Thessaly. The End.

Happily, the music for this convoluted plot is better than the story itself and, except for the annoying and non-authentic constant straight tone in the strings, it is well played and exceedingly well sung. Readers of my reviews know that I am not a fan of most countertenors singing male roles in Baroque operas, but I make an exception for Jaroussky because he is so very good … and he is good in every respect—phrasing, diction, coloration, and interpretation—not just the superior quality of the voice itself. One interesting point, however, and perhaps a bit ironic to some listeners other than myself, is that Jaroussky’s voice, with its artificially “bottomless” tone, sounds prettier but not as rich or full as Gauvin’s voice. But then, the same was true when he sang with Bartoli.

To my ears, the music starts off in the Italian Baroque style that became formulaic in the hands of Handel, Vivaldi, Broschi, and other composers, but Steffani was 30 years ahead of them. Moreover, there are numerous innovations—orchestrally-accompanied recitatives and continuous scenes in which the arias and duets are brief and wedded to the music before and after them—that were not regular features of the Italian Baroque of later times. Moreover, the orchestral palette is quite large for its time: In addition to the strings, we hear four trumpets, oboe, bassoon, harp, guitar (lots of guitar!), viola da gamba, and even a consort of viols. The singers in this performance adopt a style somewhere between “pure” singing and a semi-parlando delivery. What’s interesting is that this was described by musically astute commentators of that time, and a little after, as the “true” bel canto style, i.e., not the smooth, effortless delivery of legato phrases we came to accept as defining the style. This is consonant with what we hear in the surviving recordings of the only castrato to record, Alessandro Moreschi, as well as those singers such as Mattia Battistini and Alessandro Bonci who claimed that their method of singing went back to 18th-century Italian masters. Confronted by such an aria as Nerea’s “Quasi tutte” (act I), with its asymmetric rhythms and almost Spanish feel, one can well imagine such a thing. Smooth-voiced sopranos of the early 20th century such as Melba, Tetrazzini, Nezhdanova, Kurz, and Galli-Curci would have been hard pressed to sing this sort of thing in the proper style, but countertenor José Lemos has no problem at all.

That being said, I felt that act II spent too much time on the music for Tiresia and Manto, who are subsidiary characters, and this music—though good—was not great. It could have been cut without much harm to the opera. Yet the innovations continue, such as Nerea’s act II aria “Questi giovani moderni,” where the guitar is joined by castanets(!), or the duet “Spira già nel proprio sangue” (act III) in which Anfione and Niobe are accompanied by strange descending chromatic strings while the former employs what they called, in the Baroque era, “spotted flute” technique (repeating a pitch six or eight times in rapid succession as if you were playing them on a flute). And each act ends with a dance. Steffani was a composer who really knew how to appeal to both his audience’s “fun” side while still composing complex and interesting music that was meaningful and inventive.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan as Clearte has (no pun intended) a clear, focused tone, and this, thank goodness, is the norm and not the exception of the singers in this impressive set. Amanda Forsythe as Manto and Colin Balzer as Tiberino are equally fine, as are the rest of the singers. It is not made clear in the booklet how the directorial duties are split between Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs—was one responsible for the strings, one wonders, and the other for the brass and winds?—but another interesting feature of this score is the unusually large orchestra for its day. Certainly, Purcell rarely used such an orchestral palette in his operas or semi-operas, and I can’t recall hearing a score as richly orchestrated as this one until the time of Vivaldi and Handel, and even then not consistently so used. Moreover, there is the extraordinary continuity of the piece. Recitative, aria, ritornello, duet, and dance numbers all follow each other in an unbroken series of musical events, and, wonder of wonders, there is some real continuity given to the score in terms of related themes and occasional moments of development. If anything, I found that Steffani created a more continuously evolving score than Luigi Orlandi’s good but rambling and complicated libretto. Whether the result of just following the score or reinterpreting it in 21st-century terms, there is some real character development here, which adds richness to the ongoing musico-dramatic dialogue. Would that some of our modern opera composers would heed what Steffani does here (style of music aside) and aim for the same kind of continuity and musical interest. Following the principle that less is more, Steffani is very clever, resourceful, and varied in his use of orchestration, which in itself adds interest to the listening experience. One example among many is the surprising switch to a solo guitar accompaniment for Manto’s aria, “Vuoi ch’io parli, parlero” in act I. What other composer of that time would have done such a thing? Or the basso continuo-and-harp accompaniment to Creonte’s aria, “Dove sciolti a volo i vanni”? I can’t think of one.

But the single greatest reason why this performance succeeds is the rhythmic vitality of everyone concerned. This is almost the kind of performance one might have heard from Noah Greenberg’s old New York Pro Musica back in the 1950s—listen to the Ritornello on track 24 of the first CD, with its happy drumming and syncopated string figures, for an example. I half-expected Russell Oberlin to make a guest appearance just for the joy of it.

Yes, I could have lived without all the phony plot devices, the supposed godlike powers of some of the principals, Poliferno’s magic potions and spells, the coming and going of so many characters that by the end it’s almost as highly populated as a small town in Maine, but we have to realize that this was entertainment in an earlier era and the audiences of that time wanted all this stuff. The point is that this recording is interesting and engaging from start to finish, which is a pretty good recommendation for a work written for an entirely different type of audience than those we have today. And as I say, although the stars (Jaroussky and Gauvin) more than live up to their expectations, they do not overbalance the rest of the cast, who also sing and act extremely well. The booklet comes with a full libretto in four languages (Italian, English, French, and German) and photos of all the principals, including some pictures from the 2011 stage production in costume. For those who don’t mind the artificialities and long-windedness of Italian Baroque opera, this is a surprisingly good and interesting work, superbly played and sung.


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