Steffani: Niobe, Regine di Tebe

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Opus Arte
WORKS: Niobe, Regine di Tebe
PERFORMER: Jacek Laszczkowski, Véronique Gens, Delphine Galou, Tim Mead, Iestyn Davies, Lothar Odinius, Amanda Forsythe, Bruno Taddia, Alastair Miles; Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble/ Thomas Hengelbrock

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An extravagant cocktail of Venetian and French idioms, Agostino Steffani’s 1688 opera on the legend of Niobe, Queen of Thebes was Thomas Hengelbrock’s discovery. The Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble gave the modern premiere in 2008, transferring two years later to the Royal Opera House, where this live recording of Lukas Hemleb’s production was made.

Though Boston Early Music Festival’s recent recording is cleaner (reviewed March 2015), Hengelbrock’s has greater dynamism, a wider range of orchestral colours and articulation and a central performance of extraordinary spirit and plangency from Véronique Gens. From the organised chaos of the overture, its courtly glitter and grandeur interrupted by martial trumpets and kettle-drums, to the chill anguish of the transformation scene, as Niobe is punished for her pride by being turned into stone, the tension remains high.

Hengelbrock’s ensemble boasts a rich and characterful continuo section: double-harp, harpsichord, theorbo, guitar, violone, gamba, organ and tarry regal organ. The dance music is muscular, the violins incisive, the percussion imaginative, the footfall urgent, and the humour robust, despite the substitution of a fruity female singer, Delphine Galou, in the travesto role of Nerea.

There is strong support from Amanda Forsythe (Manto), Alastair Miles (Poliferno), Lothar Odinius (Tiberino) and countertenors Iestyn Davies and Tim Mead (as rival suitors Creonte and Clearte), either of whom might have given a more heroic account of the role of Anfione than the cloudy-toned, maiden-auntly Jacek Laszczkowski. For fluency and for Gens’s complex and alluring anti-heroine, the flaws are worth swallowing.

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Anna Picard