Until this performance, my only acquaintance with the composer, diplomat and cleric Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) had been the arias and duets recorded by Cecilia Bartoli on her 2012 album “Mission”. I was curious to experience the performance of a complete opera by the Venetian-born composer. As it turned out, I found that the exciting and inspired moments were too far apart to make Niobe truly memorable. But there was still much to be enjoyed from the excellent Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and the two main protagonists.

Karina Gauvin © Michael Slobodian
Karina Gauvin
© Michael Slobodian

Niobe, regina di Tebe was composed for the carnival season of 1688 in Munich where Steffani served the Elector of Bavaria. Its first modern performance was in 2008, at the Schwetzingen Festival, in a production that was later revived in London in 2010. The tour of concert performances that stopped in Amsterdam this week emerged from another production, that of the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra who staged it in 2011. This same ensemble has now just released a recording which is the occasion for this European tour.

The music is an interesting mix of styles: there is an overture à la française, short arias that alternate with others that already resemble da capo, and the drama is regularly interrupted by comic interludes, delivered by the nurse Nerea. On Philippe Jaroussky’s website, one can read that Niobe lays “a bridge between Monteverdi and Handel”. I personally found that, except for some too rare moments, it was no match for the musical genius or the dramatic intensity of either.

A lot is to blame on Luigi Orlandini’s libretto. The plot is based on one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the vain and fertile Queen of Thebes, Niobe, offends the gods when she boasts that her 14 children make her superior to the goddess Lato, who only bore two. Lato’s children, Apollo and Artemis, punish her offence by killing all of Niobe's children. Horrified by this massacre, her husband, King Anfione, commits suicide and she, struck by grief, turns to stone. This dramatic storyline is unfortunately relegated to the very end of the third act in Orlandini’s libretto (all 14 children are killed in one flash). The rest of the opera concentrates on a number of far less captivating sub-plots: a siege by Thessalonian Prince Creonte, helped by the magician Poliferno; Prince Tiberino’s love interest for Manto, the daughter of Tiseria; the high priest of Lato, and an unrequited love of Clearte for Niobe.

In the title role, Karina Gauvin gave a regal performance. The role’s tessitura is a perfect match for her voice. Her timbre is round and sensual and she unveiled a wondrous palette of colours, that did marvels in expressing the arrogant queen’s changes of emotions. Her final aria “Funeste immagini” left the audience audibly stunned. The priest Steffani’s sympathies however clearly lie more with the very spiritual king of Thebes, Anfione, than with his self-obsessed queen. The composer reserves the most imaginative music for this role. As Anfione, Philippe Jaroussky was phenomenal. The French countertenor demonstrated his impeccable coloratura in the fiendishly difficult “Trà bellici carmi” but it was the contemplative aria “Dell'alma stanca… Sfere amiche”, all delicately chiselled phrases, exquisitely accompanied by the violas, that showcased his vocal qualities at their best. This was the highlight of the whole evening.

The other roles unfortunately are not blessed with such memorable music. The rest of the cast was somewhat uneven. I particular liked the Colin Balzer’s expressive tenor (Tiberino) and Jesse Blumberg’s  (Poliferno) flexible baritone, but found Maarten Engeltjes’ bland alto miscast as the martial Creonte.