Tuesday 28 September 2010

Steffani's Niobe at Covent Garden

Agostino Steffani was born some 30 years before Handel. A native of Italy but with a career based in Germany, he wrote a body of operas for the courts of Munich and Hanover before devoting his life to diplomacy and the church. Handel knew him and admired his music; Steffani may have helped get Handel his first job in Hanover.

Steffani's operas mix Italian and French styles. His training took him to Italy but he spent time in France absorbing the local musical mores; so that many of his arias utilise French dance forms. Covent Garden's production of Steffani's Niobe (written 1688) was designed by Raimund Bauer and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, directed by Lukas Hemleb; it was originally seen at the Schwetzingen Festival and is being seen in a revised version at Covent Garden and Luxembourg. Thomas Hengelbrock directed his own period instrument ensemble the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble in the pit.

The problem with Niobe was simply its length. Act 1 lasted 85 minutes. Acts 2 and 3 had been cut so that combined they lasted 95 minutes. But, as far as I could tell, the cuts almost rendered the drama incoherent and reminded me of some of the drastic, drama inhibiting pruning that happened to some of Handel's later librettos. In the event, the evening started at 6.30pm, and finished at 9.4pm, so Covent Garden should have had the courage of their convictions and given us a 2nd interval and 20 minutes more music.

Steffani's arias are generally short and frequent (around 60 in a typical opera). His orchestration is lively and interesting, keeping the textures varied and moving. His operas need display, but his music matches this in inspiration so I was constantly being surprised and charmed.

A contributing factor to the opera's length was the sheer number of characters. They divided into three distinct groups, whose interactions fluctuated during the evening.

First there was Anfione, King of Thebes (Jacek Lazsczkowski) and his wife Niobe (Veronique Gens). Anfione has decided to retire from ruling and brings in Clearte (Tim Mead) to help Niobe rule. Clearte has been hiding in the wilds trying to forget his love for Niobe. Niobe's nurse Nerea (Delphine Galou) was the only comic character, injecting wry comments into the proceedings.

Then there was Tiberino (Lothar Odinius), son of the King of Alba and general he-man and warrior, who intends to attack Thebes. He kills a monster thus saving the life of Manto (Amanda Forsythe), priestess of Latona and daughter of Tiresia (Bruna Taddia), blind seer and high priest of Latona.

Finally there is the magician Poliferno (Alastair Miles), whose sister and brother-in-law were the previous King and Queen of Thebes and were killed by Anfione. Poliferno wants to be revenged on Anfione so he uses his black arts on Creonte, Prince of Thessaly (Iestyn Davies) so that Creonte desires Niobe and will do anything to get her.

Tiberino and Manto spent the entire opera havering before declaring their love. After Niobe and Anfione, Tiberino and Manto got the other significant share of air time and, frankly, we rather got tired of them and longed for them to get on with it. Similarly Clearte never does tell Niobe of his love for her.

In one astonishing scene, Anfione in retreat in the Palace of Harmony sings hauntingly of the music of the spheres, here Lazsczkowski's high counter-tenor, Steffani's gorgeous music and Bauer's designs combined into something special. Then, when Tiberino attacks Thebes, Anfione's singing raises Thebes walls.

In Act 2 Poliferno's arts create an artificial heaven (more stage spectacular) and he disguises Creonte as Mars so he can seduce Niobe - cue for more lovely music combining with spectacular stage pictures.

When order is restored, Tiberino and Manto give thanks to the goddess Latone (no, given that Tiberino was attacking Thebes, I've no idea how he comes to be celebrating his marriage in Thebes). In a fit of amazing hubris, Niobe declares that Latone's shrine should be pulled down and that people should revere her and Anfione as gods on earth. In retribution the Gods bring down fire and kill Niobe's children, Anfione commits suicide as a result. Niobe's tears flow and she turns to stone. Cleonte banishes Poliferno and becomes king of Thebes.

So, are you still with me?

Veronique Gens was a wonderful Niobe, definitely worth the visit just for her. Initially she seemed the heroine, in love with her husband and children. But we gradually detect other aspects to the character including her hubris and pride. Furious as being duped by Poliferno's magic, Gens conveyed the myriad facets of the character, though never made her likeable.

As her husband, Anfione, Lazsczkowski sang with a voice which went up beyond the stave. A remarkable voice, the very upper register was clear, pure and rather alarming, but the middle was cloudy and rather hollow and badly integrated to his chesty lower voice. In the high, lyrical passages you could be entrance, but in the lower lying dialogues and the faster bravura sections, he was less than impressive. Typically such high lying flasetto voices are not large and it was to Lazsczkowski's credit that, at his best, he filled the hall with such beauty.

Tim Mead's Clearte was a semi-comic role, as his character had to spend the opera never quite daring to tell Niobe that he loved her. Odinius's Tiberino was presented as a simple strong man (and he seemed to have no visible army). He and Amanda Forsythe were charming and lovely at first, but frankly I got a bit fed up with them. Taddia's playing of the blind Tiresia was impressive, combining a fine passionately focussed voice with an impressive ability to walk into furniture.

I did wonder whether Nerea should have been played by a man; if this had been a Venetian opera then she would have been. Anyway Delphine Galou was suitably acerbic and amusingly pert in the role, puncturing posturing nicely.

Alistair Miles and Iestyn Davies seemed to suffer rather in the costume department and Poliverno's magic seemed to consist of a giant amorphous blob which followed him about. Still, Davies got to sing a beautiful scene with Gens and he came out on top at the end.

Steffani's operas call for lots of stage effects. Hemleb and Bauer created some brilliant ones in a modern idiom. Good use was made of a mirrored back-drop which created some beautiful effects. This was a staging which was a feast for the eyes but you never felt that Hemleb was struggling to find another trick in order to keep us entertained. The production flowed nicely and Hemleb wasn't afraid of doing nothing. Moments like Anfione's moving scene when he thinks he has lost Niobe were played on a bare open stage.

After the unimpressive Tamerlano earlier this year, it was good to see and hear a baroque opera done well at Covent Garden. Crucially Hemleb kept his singers well forward at all important moments, there was not question here of the set swallowing sound. My only real complaint about the production (cutting apart) was that Hemleb seemed to have ignored the French influence in the piece. There were many moments when Steffani's music seemed to call for dance, real formal dancing, and this was not provided. Instead we had a couple of quasi-comic dance interludes which seemed entirely wrong in tone.

I can't say I found Niobe a forgotten masterpiece. But it was certainly a fascinating and important work, one I would love to encounter again.

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