15 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Agostino Steffani – NIOBE, REGINA DI TEBE (K. Gauvin, P. Jaroussky, A. Forsythe, A. Sheehan, T. Wey, J. Blumberg, C. Balzer, C. Immler, J. Lemos; ERATO 0825646343546)

CD REVIEW: Agostino Steffani - NIOBE, REGINA DI TEBE (ERATO 0825646343546)AGOSTINO STEFFANI (1653 – 1728): Niobe, regina di TebeKarina Gauvin (Niobe), Philippe Jaroussky (Anfione), Amanda Forsythe (Manto), Christian Immler (Tiresia), Aaron Sheehan (Clearte), Terry Wey (Creonte), Jesse Blumberg (Poliferno), Colin Balzer (Tiberino), José Lemos (Nerea); Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra; Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors [Recorded in the Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany, 1 – 14 November 2013; ERATO 0825646343546; 3 CDs, 223:44; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It is one of the great ironies of music in the new millennium that an opera like Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, regina di Tebe should languish in obscurity, not heard for centuries until produced in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries by enterprising historically-informed institutions, and then, as if by the sort of magic so beloved by opera audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, not one but two commercial recordings of the score should appear within only a few months. The rival to ERATO’s fantastic souvenir of the Boston Early Music Festival production, which in addition to its 2011 Festival outing has recently toured Europe in concert form, is a ‘live’ recording of the 2010 Royal Opera House production featuring the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble and Thomas Hengelbrock. Despite engineering superior to that heard on many recordings made during live performances at Covent Garden and the participation of an excellent cast including one of the world's finest sopranos, the divine Véronique Gens, the Opus Arte recording falls short of the benchmark set by ERATO’s impeccably-engineered, thoughtfully-presented recording. Indeed, by today’s standards Steffani’s score receives suitably royal treatment. The critical question that a production or recording of a forgotten work like Steffani’s Niobe, regina di Tebe ultimately must answer is whether the score is truly worthy of the effort and expense required to revive it. A little-remembered 1977 performance in New York’s Alice Tully Hall by Newell Jenkins and his Clarion Music Society hinted that Niobe deserved the attention. The Covent Garden and BEMF productions furthered the case for the opera’s renaissance, and this recording offers an opportunity for listeners to hear Steffani’s music performed with the flair and finesse so missed in performances of later repertory. Niobe, regina di Tebe cannot be claimed to be a rediscovered masterpiece of the lasting significance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Wagner’s Parsifal, or Verdi’s Falstaff, but when revisited in 2365 how many of today’s operas will have anything like the lasting enchantment of Steffani’s gem of a score?

First performed in Munich in 1688, Niobe is among the plethora of Baroque operas with subject matter drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in this case adapted by librettist Luigi Orlandini. Already a figure with a centuries-old tradition by the times of her mentions in texts by Homer, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, Niobe is reputed to have been the daughter of Tantalus. Her early chroniclers depict her as a proud woman whose boastful claims of superiority led to the slaying of her fourteen children by the twins Apollo and Artemis, acting on orders from their mother Leto. Both in the literary milieu of Antiquity and in a much later work like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Niobe was an archetype of the grieving mother akin to Clytemnestra and Hecuba, and the character created by Steffani and Orlandini is in certain respects not unlike Händel’s Semele. In essence, this Niobe is the protagonist in a cautionary tale ideally summarized by the familiar words of Psalm 16:18: ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.’ The destruction that Niobe’s actions inflict upon her family had as many parallels in the Seventeenth Century as there are in the Twenty-First. Only forty years before the première of Niobe, central Europe was devastated by the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict on a gargantuan scale propagated by clashes among empires, nationalistic ambitions, and Catholic and Protestant interests: it is not difficult to imagine that the symbolic relationships among the characters in Niobe resonated with composer, librettist, and contemporary audiences. From a Twenty-First-Century perspective, the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001, a day that now seems almost mythological, lends an unique profundity to the conceit of the decisions of people in positions of power upending innocent lives. As recorded, this performance focuses on performing Steffani’s score as stylishly as possible and allowing the individual listener to form opinions about the opera’s topicality. At the very least, Niobe is a piece with a social conscience, but this recording rightly presents the opera as a musical journey, not a manifesto ripe for political interpretation.

The musical language of Niobe is a cosmopolitan idiom that combines elements of the Italian traditions inherited from Monteverdi and Cavalli with north-of-the-Alps trends guiding musical discourse in German-speaking Europe. The assertion that Steffani’s work in general represents a crucial step in the transition from the early opera of Monteverdi to the mature Baroque of Händel is justifiable, but Niobe inhabits a singular sound world. Händel was a toddler when Niobe was first performed, but Steffani’s score sounds as though it could have been a suitable nursemaid during the younger composer’s operatic infancy. Building upon Cavalli’s development of contrasting recitative, arioso, aria, and ensemble, Steffani engendered a style that resembles the young Händel’s Venetian opera Agrippina with its succession of plot-advancing recitative and brief, emotionally-specific arias. In Niobe, at least, Steffani’s gifts as a musical dramatist do not equal those of Monteverdi, Cavalli, or Händel at their best, but a considerable talent for tailoring music to particular situations and moods is readily apparent. The brevity of individual numbers notwithstanding, Niobe is a sprawling work, and without visual cues and the benefit of watching singers interact not even the peerless cast assembled for this recording can wholly overcome the burden of having to sustain the listener’s interest over what is, particularly by modern, post-Puccini criteria, a long haul. That this recording succeeds so capitally is a testament to the exceptional work of everyone involved with it.

Led by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs with the stylistic affinity that their names have come to represent, the musicians of the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra give an account of Steffani’s score that is nothing short of authoritative in terms of virtuosity, understanding of the inner and outer structures of each scene, and teamwork, not only among their own ranks but also with the vocal cast. In music such as this, the continuo is of vital importance—nothing short of the central nervous system of a performance. Vital to the continuity and histrionic effectiveness of the performance on these discs is the outstanding playing of Luca Guglielmi on harpsichord and organ, Maxine Eilander on Baroque harp, and Erin Headley on viola da gamba: their endeavors, spurred by Maestri O'Dette’s and Stubbs’s predictably inventive playing of theorbo and Baroque guitar, propel the performance forward, giving consistently organic impetus to the characters’ exchanges and inviting the listener into the drama as a silent participant rather than a distant observer. Likewise, the gorgeous sounds made by the viol consort in Act One, Scene 13—Christel Thielmann, Hille Perle, Frauke Hess, and Ms. Headley—add a dimension of musical variety to the performance. Interestingly, some of the finest playing on this recording is done in the ballet music by Melchior d'Ardespin. Throughout the performance, the musicians play masterfully, however, and Maestri O'Dette and Stubbs pace an account of the opera that provides the singers with ideal support of their collective efforts at bringing Steffani’s music and Orlandini’s words to life for the listener.

Among a large cast of reliably stylish, engaging singers, the astounding voice of countertenor José Lemos is unforgettable. His singing of the rôle of Nerea, the sort of part that can quickly annoy the listener when entrusted to a careless singer, is remarkable for its integration of an endearingly vibrant personality with a natural instrument of extraordinary beauty. Nerea’s trio of arias in Act One—'Quasi tutte,' 'Che agli assalti degli amanti,' and the delightful 'Assistetemi'—provide Mr. Lemos with fodder for exhibiting both his vocal eloquence and his unerring dramatic instincts. The nobility with which he shapes ‘Quasi tutte’ grants the duplicitous nurse greater depth of character than she deserves, but the dignity of Mr. Lemos’s singing is most welcome. His arias in Acts Two and Three, 'Questi giovani moderni' and 'Che alla fè di donne amanti,' are oases in a landscape drained of humor, and Mr. Lemos rises to the occasions with vocalism of focus and panache. A few notes at the top of line strain him, but as a singer and an actor he finds in Nerea’s meddling opportunities to uplift Steffani’s music with the best of his artistry.

The Tiresia of bass Christian Immler is a stern, vocally granitic presence whose oracular tidings are proclaimed with solid, bronze-hued tone in the Act One arias 'Amor t'attese al varco' and 'Di strali, e fulmini.’ In Act Two, Mr. Immler sings 'Confuse potenze' and 'De numi la legge' with grandiloquence befitting a seer. Mr. Immler’s voice is stronger at the upper extreme of Tiresia’s range than at the bottom, but his impersonation is forceful throughout the character’s musical and dramatic compasses.

As Tiberino, Canadian tenor Colin Balzer sings powerfully, his flexible voice and complete security in the lower octave of the part contributing to a vivid portrayal that radiates strength and sensuality. His sings Tiberino’s Act One aria 'Alba essulti, e il Lazio goda' with insurmountable technical acumen, and the subsequent arias 'Tu non sai che sia diletto' and 'Quanto sospirerai' inspire him to singing of stirring immediacy. 'Il tuo sguardo o bella mia' and 'Ci sei colto mio cor' in Act Two are delivered with similar impact, the unstilted refinement of his elocution all the more impressive because of the magnetism of the timbre. In Act Three, Mr. Balzer voices the aria 'Hor ch'è mio quel vago labro' with delicious sophistication. His burnished, burly tone distinguishes him from his male colleagues in this performance, and the adroitness of his singing identifies him as one of the most gifted exponents of repertory of Niobe’s vintage.

Young baritone Jesse Blumberg is a singer of astonishing versatility who seems capable of singing virtually any repertory authoritatively. A Lieder singer of a high order, his performance as Poliferno in Niobe confirms that he is also a potent presence in Baroque music. The imagination with which he sings the very different 'Nuovo soglio, e nuova bella' and 'Fiera Aletto' in Act One makes a potent impression, the alacrity with which he differentiates the arias indicative of expert musicality and dramatic intelligence. The swagger with which he executes the difficulties of 'Numi tartarei' in Act Two harmonizes with his rousing performance of the aria 'Gioite, godete' in Act Three. His vocal lines sometimes take him just below the lower boundary of his comfort zone, but the only real disappointment is that Steffani did not allocate more music to the malicious Poliferno: perhaps he never envisioned an artist as talented as Mr. Blumberg singing the rôle.

Swiss countertenor Terry Wey portrays the hapless Creonte with dignity and an unaffected display of technique and tonal allure. A gifted artist still too little represented on disc, his performance in Niobe is evidence of the fine singing of which he is capable. In the Act One arias 'Dove sciolti à volo i vanni' and 'Anderei fin nell'Inferno,' his command of the idiom and warm tone are obvious in every phrase that he sings. Likewise, Creonte’s arias in Act Two, 'Del mio ben occhi adorati' and 'Lascio l'armi, e cedo il campo,' receive from Mr. Wey traversals of glistening charm. His duetting with Niobe in 'T'abbraccio mia diva' is wonderfully evocative, and his lustrous account of 'Luci belle' in Act Three is one of the highlights of the recording. Indeed, Mr. Wey’s every appearance in the course of the opera prompts gratitude, both for his polishing singing and for his thoughtful vocal acting.

In the rôle of Clearte, this performance benefits from the work of one of America’s finest singers in any repertory, tenor Aaron Sheehan. With a voice and dramatic demeanor as piercingly lovely as his glacial blue eyes, he creates a three-dimensional character even in the context of a studio recording. In Act One, his singing of the aria 'Son amante, e sempre peno' is unutterably beautiful, his enunciation of the text touched by a throbbing melancholy. He complements this with a performance of 'C'hò da morir tacendo' that embodies the elusive art of bel canto. The phenomenal effectiveness of his portrayal of Clearte is heightened in Act Two by his singing of 'Voglio servir fedel' and 'Non mi far pianger sempre,' both of which he sculpts with the strokes of a master craftsman. There is an exuberance in his enunciation of 'Tutta gioia, e tutta riso' in Act Three that increases the emotional temperature of the performance, and the intensity of expression in his intoning of the accompagnato 'Ma lasso' is electrifying. The faculty with which Mr. Sheehan scales the heights of Clearte’s haute-contre tessitura is awe-inspiring, but the foremost pleasure of his singing is its unforced comeliness.

Here singing the rôle of Manto, the radiant soprano Amanda Forsythe sang the title rôle in the 2011 BEMF staging of Niobe. She is a singer for whom Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century repertory is completely natural territory, and her polished-silver voice possesses reserves of power that enable her to sustain fastidiously-nuanced characterizations throughout the course of a performance of a score as demanding as Steffani’s. Her technique enables her to toss off the Act One aria 'Se la vita à me donasti' with aplomb, followed by an account of the aria 'Vuoi ch'io parli, parlerò' that is notable for its singularity of dramatic purpose. The simplicity of her enunciation in 'Nel mio seno à poco à poco' transforms her portrayal from one of a delicate, naïve girl into a study of a sensitive but strong-willed young woman. In Act Two, she shapes her accounts of the arias 'Tu ci pensasti poco' and 'Hò troppo parlato' with unfettered ingenuity, her upper register pealing with the freshness of youth. Like several of her colleagues in this performance, Ms. Forsythe is at her best in Act Three, in which she sings 'Chiudetevi miei lumi' lusciously. She must have been a very moving Niobe, but she cannot have been more convincing than she is as Manto in this performance.

It is no exaggeration to state that French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has not only achieved the pinnacle of success for a modern singer of his Fach but has also contributed indelibly to the expansion of the reach, reception, and sheer appeal of countertenor singing. His assumption of the title rôle in Stefano Landi’s Il Sant'Alessio with Les Arts Florissants restored to that opera the authenticity of its original casting, and he has brought to a wide array of parts composed for legendary castrati both the appropriate gender identity and historically-informed instincts bolstered by the training and preparation of a modern singer. It is also no exaggeration to suggest that, with a discography containing many valuable recordings, Mr. Jaroussky has done nothing finer on disc than this portrayal of Steffani’s Anfione. In the proud monarch’s Act One duet with his obdurate consort, 'Sollievo del mio seno,' the countertenor’s voice gleams, and his singing of the aria 'Miratemi begl'occhi' is exquisite. Then, the concentrated emotion that he evinces in the accompagnato 'Dell'alma stanca' is contrasted with the subtlety of his performance of the aria 'Sfere amiche.' The grandeur that courses through Mr. Jaroussky’s account of 'Come padre, e come dio' recurs in his ardent singing in the duettino with Niobe, 'Mia fiamma, mio ardore.' In Act Two, self-righteousness emanates from his assured navigation of the vocal lines in the aria ‘Ascendo alle stelle,' and he phrases 'Dal mio petto o pianti uscite' with tremendous feeling. In terms of unadulterated virtuosity, the summit of Anfione’s musical Everest is the aria 'Trà bellici carmi.' The almost insouciant ease with which Mr. Jaroussky dispatches the frenzied coloratura is dazzling, as well as appropriate to the character’s psychological profile, but it is the pair of arias in Act Three—‘Hò perduta la speranza' and 'Spira già nel proprio sangue' with Niobe—that reveal the full spectrum of his gifts. The bright patina of Mr. Jaroussky’s voice is ideally suited to Anfione’s incandescent music: other singers might sing the part as well as he does on this recording, but it is impossible to imagine the rôle being sung better.

Québécoise soprano Karina Gauvin is one of the brightest stars shining in the Early Music firmament, and her performance of the title rôle in Niobe is often celestial. There are fleeting moments in which the voice sounds slightly heavy for the music, the singer’s deft handling of even the most fleet passagework notwithstanding. The prevailing sensibilities of her portrayal seem borrowed from the Nineteenth Century rather than the Seventeenth, but as the performance progresses it becomes ever clearer that this is a dramatic advantage. Instead of an over-complicated but ultimately one-dimensional heroine in the fashion of the ladies who populate Seventeenth-Century operas, Ms. Gauvin creates within the confines of Steffani’s music and Orlandini’s words a nuanced character who would not be out of place in a masterpiece of Donizetti’s maturity. This is not to imply that there is anything anachronistic in Ms. Gauvin’s singing: she consistently matches her colleagues’ stylishness but on a somewhat larger scale. In the Act One duet with Anfione, ‘Sollievo del mio seno,’ Ms. Gauvin and Mr. Jaroussky spar with legitimate regality, and the soprano’s assured singing of Niobe’s arias 'È felice il tuo cor' and 'Vorrei sempre vagheggiarti' sets the stage for the understated, self-serving eroticism of her voicing of her lines in the duettino with Anfione, 'Mia fiamma, mio ardore.' The stream of contempt that flows through the Act Two aria 'Qui la dea cieca volante' floods Ms. Gauvin’s singing without disturbing the tonal quality, and she soars through 'Stringo al seno un nume amante' with the words thrown like knives into the listener’s ears. The duetto with Creonte, 'T'abbraccio mia diva,' finds her at her most demure, the text wafted on a gentle zephyr of song. Niobe’s formidable dramatic challenges are in Act Three, and Ms. Gauvin proves a shrewd artist with untold stylistic resources at the ready. She produces a golden river of tone in the aria 'Amami, e vederai' before unleashing tempests of sentiment in 'Contro il Ciel' and 'In mezzo al armi.' She again unites with Mr. Jaroussky in 'Spira già nel proprio sangue,' their very different voices conveying conflicting emotions that in turn both bring Niobe and Anfione together and drive them apart. Ms. Gauvin assumes the dramatic weight of a Gluckian doomed heroine in her pained but controlled reading of 'Funeste imagini.' On the page, Orlandini’s Niobe is a woman who warrants only slightly more sympathy than Ovid’s, but in Ms. Gauvin’s performance she earns the mien of tragedy.

It must sometimes seem strange, especially to those observers whose primary musical interests are centered in later repertory, that such wealths of time, talent, and funding are devoted to the rediscovery and resurrection of operas like Agostino Steffani’s 1688 Niobe, regina di Tebe. Like any other aspect of life on earth, opera is cyclical: in terms of interest in a particular niche of operatic repertory, what goes around comes around. There are very practical factors contributing to the rebirths of forgotten operatic progeny of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, however. Foremost among those factors is the presence of singers like those heard on this recording, singers not only capable of singing music like Steffani’s but committed to singing it as Flagstad and Melchior sang Wagner and Tebaldi and Bergonzi sang Verdi. When recordings of standard repertory so often disappoint [perhaps Warner Classics’ forthcoming Aida with Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann will defy this trend!], it is a recording like this superb encounter with Niobe, regina di Tebe that reminds Twenty-First-Century listeners that we do not dwell in a musical dessert parched of great singing. The watering holes are now perhaps a bit farther from the established trails and, rather than being named Elisabeth and Tannhäuser on the operatic map, are called Niobe and Anfione.