Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione
People who dislike Baroque opera often claim that its plots are convoluted and absurd. Such claims beg the question of whether Baroque operas are typically more convoluted and absurd than staples of the mainstream repertoire such as, say, Verdi's Il Trovatore or Bellini's La sonnambula. They also raise the issue of whether those who make such stereotypical claims have ever heard the dramatically compelling operas of Monteverdi, Purcell and Handel.
I have to say, though, that "convoluted and absurd" is a fair description of the plot of Agostino Steffani's Niobe, Regina di Tebe (Niobe, Queen of Thebes, 1688), the centerpiece opera of this year's Boston Early Music Festival (seen June 19). The story is based on Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses: Manto, daughter of the seer Tiresius, urges the women of Thebes to perform rites at the shrine of Latona, mother of Apollo and Diana. Queen Niobe becomes angered, demanding to be worshipped for her own semi-divine origins and boasting that her seven sons and seven daughters surpass Latona's mere two. For her sacrilege and pride, Niobe is punished by the deaths of all her children and the suicide of her despairing husband, Amphion. Finally, surrounded by the bodies of her family, the grief-stricken Niobe herself is turned to stone.
Steffani's librettist, Luigi Orlandi, took this straightforward story and complicated it with subplots involving rival princes (Clearte, Creonte, and Tiberino), an evil magician bent on revenge (Poliferno), a bawdy nurse (Nerea—a stock character in 17th-century opera), and the repeated appearances of a bear (perhaps a real one when the opera was performed in Munich during the 1688 carnival; in Boston, a guy (the game Jay Lloyd Smith) in a bear suit). In Ellen Hargis's translation, the 1688 libretto lists among the scenery an "Ampitheater with a large aerial Globe in the center, which after opening forms a Heavenly Body," "Hell, which rises in the empty space of this Scene, and then sinks" and "the Planet Mars, which is then transformed into a Lonely Place with Grottos." "Machines" included "an enormous Monster," "two infernal Dragons," characters rising and descending in clouds, a flying chariot, and "the falling of many Buildings in an Earthquake." Fun, yes; coherent or emotionally engaging, no.
Fortunately this production offered rewards apart from the plot. Chief among them was the spectacular countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in the role of Anfione (Amphion). The moment Jaroussky began to sing an electric surge of excitement rippled through the audience. The unearthly soprano sound he produces, his amazing virtuosity and his deep musicality offer a suggestion of why in the Baroque era the castrati were showered with so much adulation. In classical myth Amphion was an Orpheus-like figure whose singing was so moving that with it he could command the very rocks to build the walls of Thebes, and Steffani did not miss the opportunity to give his primo uomo the best music in the opera. It wasn't all coloratura fireworks, either; Anfione is also given several highly affecting arias of yearning, mourning and loss.
Unfortunately, while Anfione's music was exquisite, as a hero he was lacking: he's shallow, vain, and easily duped by Niobe. Niobe herself is highly unsympathetic: proud, narcissistic, manipulative and unscrupulous. A lack of virtue in the main characters isn't necessarily a fatal flaw: Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) and Handel's Alcina both feature morally compromised heroines, and are among the greatest operas ever written. But the creations of Steffani and Orlandi somehow don't arouse the same degree of sympathy and interest.
Matthew White as Creonte and Amanda Forsythe as Niobe
Steffani also wrote some gorgeous love music for Creonte (Matthew White) and Niobe (Amanda Forsythe)—bewitched by Poliferno (Jesse Blumberg), Niobe believes that she has been chosen by the god Mars as his consort, which is how they wind up on his planet—and for Tiberino (Colin Balzar) and Manto (Yulia Van Doren). There are also some amusing set-pieces for the travesti role of Nerea (José Lemos, who has also appeared with Bay Area group Magnificat). The strongest possible case for Steffani's music was made by the superb BEMF Orchestra under the leadership of concertmaster Cynthia Roberts, with musical direction by lutenist Stephen Stubbs.
But in general I felt that Steffani's melodic invention wasn't as consistently appealing as, say, Handel's. Coupled with the bewildering story, unsympathetic characters, and (despite extensive cuts) a running time of four hours, it made for a long afternoon in the theater. While it was enjoyable to see Anna Watkin's sumptuous costumes and Gilbert Blin's recreations of Baroque stage effects, I couldn't help feeling that the best of the music might have been more effectively presented in a concert version.
Still, the BEMF is to be applauded for realizing such a massively complex undertaking onstage, and for assembling such a talented group of designers, performers and musicians to do so. Jaroussky in particular was a revelation. It looks like he will be touring in North America this fall with Apollo's Fire performing a program of Handel and Vivaldi arias—he appears in Berkeley at the end of October and in Boston in early November—and if you have the opportunity to see him in person, don't miss it.
Philippe Jaroussky performing Vivaldi's "Vedro con mio diletto"
Update 28 September 2012: The 2011 Berkeley concert appearance by Philippe Jaroussky and Apollo's Fire was an unforgettable experience; you can read about it here.
Update 9 October 2012: Jaroussky sings four duets with kindred spirit Cecilia Bartoli on her spectacular new album of Steffani arias, Mission. It will definitely be on my list of favorite albums of 2012.