WORKS: Niobe, Regina di Tebe
PERFORMER: Karina Gauvin, Philippe Jaroussky, Amanda Forsythe, Christian Immler, Aaron Sheehan, Terry Wey; Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra/Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs
CATALOGUE NO: 0825646343546
Poor, proud, fecund Niobe. Mother to 12 (or 14) children, she was horribly punished for her boastfulness. First her sons and daughters were slaughtered, then she wept for nine days, then she was turned into stone, still weeping. One might imagine a terse, bitter opera could be fashioned from her story. But Agostino Steffani’s 1688 treatment is long, lavish, brilliantly varied and a unique fusion of French and Venetian styles. There are magical spells, an earthquake, a tempest aria, sinuous laments, martial fanfares and virile dances. Written for Munich, Niobe, Regina di Tebe combines elements of Cavalli’s carnival entertainments and Lully’s courtly tragédies lyriques, and anticipates the frank sensuality of Handel’s first great opera, Agrippina.
The first modern revival was in 2008, at the Schwetzingen Festival. Two years later Thomas Hengelbrock’s discovery was revived at the Royal Opera House. In 2011, Boston Early Music Festival gave its own Niobe, with musical direction by lutenists Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Recorded in Bremen, with Karina Gauvin and Philippe Jaroussky as the preening queen and her cuckolded consort, Anfione, it is a scrupulously detailed, slow-burning performance with an outstanding viol consort for Anfione’s ‘Dell’ alma stance…Sfere amiche’. The supporting roles are strongly cast, though José Lemos’s Nerea (a travesto role) sounds too feminine for the comedy to work. Jaroussky is at his best in music of penetrating sweetness and curdles under pressure. The laurels go to Gauvin, whose magnificent, creamy soprano ignites in the fury and anguish of Act III.