The composer Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) survives today thanks to performances of well-known artists such as Bartoli, Jaroussky, Hengelbrock and Rovatkay, somewhat more in evidence than a few years ago. However, this illustrious multi-talented Italian – as well as his musical career in Munich, Hanover and Düsseldorf, Steffani was amongst other things a diplomat, a secret agent and a senior cleric – still appears far too infrequently on our stages. Which makes it a risky undertaking for the Berlin State Opera to stage the first modern performance of Steffani’s opera Amor vien dal destino (originally premièred in Düsseldorf in 1709), in Berlin’s Schiller Theater, with the help of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under the expert leadership of René Jacobs. (Excepting, that is, a 1982 concert performance by Newell Jenkens at New York’s Lincoln Center).

The title of the opera – “Love comes from fate” - tells you the theme (no surprises here): love together with all its complications. Lavinia, daughter of the king of the Latins, is supposed to marry Turno, King of the Rutulians, but on the wedding day, she gets cold feet because an attractive stranger, Enea, has appeared to her in a dream. Lavinia is not aware that her sister Giuturna is secretly in love with Turno, and even less aware that Aeneas, who has himself had a similar dream about Lavinia, is even now pursuing a course towards the coast of Latium. However, none of this is happening by accident, as made clear by a chorus of the gods, which starts singing suddenly in the second part of the overture (according to the composer, a moment before the curtain goes up – a stroke of operatic brilliance that Steffani also used in Henrico Leone), arguing over the fate of the humans, a decision which must be made by Jupiter (the excellent Rupert Enticknap).

Steffani maintained an intensive correspondence with great ladies of his time, notably Sophie Charlotte, Queen of Prussia, infused the material of his librettist Ortensio Mauro with motifs from Virgil’s Aeneid to produce a remarkable work, which stands out as much through the originality of its instrumentation as in its willingness to experiment.

Director Ingo Kerkhof gives a clever and witty interpretation of the “Ambivalence of chance and determination” at the heart of human destiny. To this end, he augments the singing ensemble with a dumb role: the gawky, tousle-headed Amor (the superb Konstantin Bühler), who is on stage for almost the whole opera, but always in some way separated from the action. Whereas Puck, his colleague from the fairy world in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, does his work with the juice of a flower, this Amor is a gardener who plants bunches of long wheat stalks on the stage. In Dirk Becker’s simple but convincing staging, with the action framed by a red velvet curtain, you get the impression of an entire wheatfield growing up to the sky. The staging was never heavy: rather, it was elating, often hilarious. The best part: the aesthetic (principally restrained in creamy white, with period costumes by Stephan von Wedel) fully corresponded to the deep joie de vivre and melancholy lightness of Steffani’s singable music, with its rich colours, often switching between tutti solos, arias with various orchestral accompaniments and instrumental ritornellos. Conductor René Jacobs accentuated this by using an extravagant selection of continuo instruments to accompany the recitative, including harpsichord, organ, theorbo, lute, bassoon, chalumeau, double bass and cello. Some of the ballet music is missing from the opera’s manuscript, which was edited by the English Steffani specialist Colin Timms: for this production, Jacobs filled it in from other works, including Steffani’s one act La Lotta d’Ercole con Acheloo.

With at least 17 operas and over 80 chamber duets under his belt, Steffani had full mastery of the art of the duet: this was demonstrated not just by the purely vocal parts but also by dialogues between voice and solo instruments. Lavinia was played by the beautiful Katarina Bradić, whose deep, dark mezzo gave wonderful colour to the inner conflicts of the sensitive heroine; her first appearance was accompanied by a lute. In her twin roles of Venus and Giuturna, Robin Johannsen had more prominent numbers, through which she was able to display all the emotion and technique of her refined soprano. Giuturna, driven near-insane by her forbidden love for Turno, repeated three times her metaphorical helmsman’s aria. Johannsen especially shone in Venus’s prologue lament aria, in which, accompanied by oboe, she fears for the fate of her son Aeneas. It was a joy to hear baroque tenor Jeremy Ovenden in his coloratura role, so effortlessly did the notes flow like a stream of pearls from his lips. As Turno (originally a castrato role), the delicate, angelically-voiced Olivia Vermeulen punished her adversaries and her emotionally confused fiancée with truly diabolical vocal acrobatics, which earned her huge applause from a thrilled audience. Many cheers and laughs also came to the comic pair of Lavinia’s provocative aunt Nicea (played deliciously by tenor Mark Milhoffer in best buffo fashion) and her fickle admirer Corebo (Gyula Orendt – a heartbreaker both to see and hear).

There was an almost mystical dream scene, in which the King of the Latins (Marcos Fink, whose rich bass put one in mind of old red wine) tells the story of the ghostly appearance of his father Fauno, warning about the coming times. Here, Steffani, who composed the opera in 1690 in Hanover, brought to the stage four of a brand new instrument: the newly developed chalumeau, forerunner of the clarinet. Thus Fauno’s prophecy for the future is also mirrored by the future of the musical instruments that accompany it.

After this frenetic, acclaimed première in Berlin, who knows whether the “Saint Augustine of Music” (as Steffani was called in his time) will gradually become a cult figure!