Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

STEFFANI: Niobe, Regina di Tebe

spacer Gauvin, Forsythe; Jaroussky, Balzer, Sheehan, Lemos, Blumberg, Wey, Immler; Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, O’Dette and Stubbs. Erato 0825646343546 (3)

NIobeCD

Many listeners were introduced to Agostino Steffani’s music by Cecilia Bartoli’s album Mission. My own introduction came with a 2010 production of Niobe, Regina di Tebe at Covent Garden, an evening so utterly devoid of music, drama and music-drama that I decided to ask an usher if it was meant to be for real. 

Matters have improved a hundredfold with this release. Performers are rapidly coming to terms with this repertoire (specifically, opera in the wake of Cavalli, leading to the flowering of Handel), and the results here are something of a miraculous balance of ideas. With so little truly understood about performance practice in this period, and with tastes evolving over the intervening hundreds of years, choices about the constitution of continuo groups and the flexibility of deployment of instruments can lead to unchangingly arid evenings in the theater or to nonstop headache-inducing jitters. Here, under music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Baroque practice and modern tastes are both accommodated. 

The instruments may give us a musical shower of tears, or a murmuring of waters, or the harmony of the spheres, but they don’t turn into a silent-movie accompaniment. The musicians play with unflagging spirit in a score that runs about fifteen minutes shy of four hours. Steffani’s music is especially detailed in the various stages of the charming, faltering, then burgeoning love between the young couple Manto and Tiberino, and these superb players are clearly energized by the shivery hints of chromaticism.

This recording has an out-and-out star performance from Philippe Jaroussky, who, as Anfione, is given a wide-ranging role for a true actor. He encompasses scenes of divine incantation, fury, sudden abandonment and suicide with his limpid scales and love of text. As the titular queen, Karina Gauvin offers dark colorings suitable for this multilayered woman, who leads her life by ulterior motives. Her florid singing sounds appropriately hard-earned. She is chilling in her imperious moments, suitable for a ruler who, so often insensitive to others, is finally turned to stone. Amanda Forsythe’s Manto, with sunshine in her tone, has bright and forward Italian diction, paired with the equally touching and pure Colin Balzer as Tiberino. The Creonte of Terry Wey is a reminder that Baroque singers were prized for their low notes as well as their high ones, while Jesse Blumberg’s Poliferno is a baritone with a major upper register. Aaron Sheehan’s Clearte, in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise, has no “early music” mannerisms at all. Like the rest of the cast, he is good at differentiating lines sung as asides.

Steffani was a diplomat, a Catholic bishop and later a vicar. The packaging for Bartoli’s album was mainly concerned with whether he was also a spy. The Covent Garden Niobe was sold with the tag line “The gods are angry, and one mother must pay the ultimate price,” which has little to do with anything. The message of this fine recording is that Steffani wrote a consistently rewarding opera. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

 

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