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Steffani, Niobe, Regina di Tebe: Soloists, Balthasar Neumann Ensemble/Thomas Hengelbrock, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 23.9.2010 (J-PJ)



Anfione – Jacek Laszczkowski

Niobe – Veronique Gens

Nerea – Delphine Galou

Clearte – Tim Mead

Tiberino – Lothar Odinius

Manto – Amanda Forsythe

Tiresia – Bruno Taddia

Poliferno – Alastair Miles

Creonte – Iestyn Davies


Lukas Hemleb (director)

Raimund Bauer (set and lighting designs)

Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (costume designs)

Thomas Stache (choreography)

Veronique Gens as Niobe  - Picture © The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper

It’s not often that the Royal Opera House delves into Baroque obscurity, but their latest venture has fully paid off and, hopefully, will set the scene for future re-discoveries. Agostino Steffani and his ‘dramma per musica’ Niobe, Regina di Tebe quickly slipped into obscurity after the composer’s death in 1728. But in his day, Steffani was a major musical force, well-known and admired by fellow musicians such as Keiser and Handel.

There is still much to admire in Niobe. Coming between Cavalli and Handel, and contemporaneous with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the opera is marked by graceful, melodic arias and sophisticated recitatives. The drama, too – although a little over-long – is rich and varied, with courtly ensembles, plenty of love duets, flashes of sorcery, and military overtones.

Director Lukas Hemleb does a fine job of adapting his 2008 production from the Schwetzingen Festival. The staging is imaginative and grandly impressive. In Act II, for example, Anfione, King of Thebes (Jacek Laszczkowski) is raised to the heavens with the help of a giant glitter ball casting brilliant starlight around the stage. The final conflagration in which Niobe’s children are destroyed is equally arresting, and quite gruesome. But Hemleb also successfully subverts grand Baroque conventions with a strong strain of ironic wit. The evil Poliferno (Alastair Miles), for instance, is a black-clad devil with inflatable wings. He and his protégé Creonte (Iestyn Davies – resembling Edward Scissorhands) move across the underworld on a brown blob, accompanied by blooping sound effects.

Unlike later Italian operas, Niobe is not full of show-stopping numbers. Instead, its highlights are the gentler, contemplative arias sung mostly by Laszczkowski’s Anfione. His well-publicised ‘male soprano’ voice works rather well, although the transition between middle and upper registers does wobble occasionally. He is at his best at the top of the scale, and gives an idea of what the castrato may have sounded like. Veronique Gens as Niobe is excellent – alternately haughty, seductive and grief-stricken. Her love duet with Iestyn Davies (Creonte, disguised as the god Mars) is superb. The Balthasar Neumann Ensemble under Thomas Hengelbrock rejoice in the punchy rhythms and delicate instrumentation of Steffani’s score. It has taken more than three hundred years for Niobe to reach London. So catch while you can.

John-Pierre Joyce


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