With its ravishing June production of Agostino Steffani’s 1688 opera, Niobe, Queen of Thebes, the Boston Early Music Festival has confirmed its unique and invaluable role within the early music movement. That movement is the most important classical music phenomenon of our time. Its passion for recreating the musical sensibility of the past has reinvigorated overly familiar repertoire with dynamic new interpretations, while bringing unjustly forgotten works such as Steffani’s Niobe to light.
Yet when it comes to opera, most early music ensembles confine their pursuit of authenticity to the pit, ceding responsibility for the stage action to directors who lack any interest in history. The result is a bizarrely disjunctive experience in which the music emanating from the orchestra’s pre-modern instruments is as faithful a recreation of Baroque performance practice as the limits of historical knowledge allow, while the updated drama on stage features TV-addled housewives and evil shopping mall developers acting out the obsessions of postmodern consumer society, complete with twentieth-century body language and gadgets (cell phones required!).
The Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), by contrast, takes the apparently radical position that the action and the music in Baroque opera form a unified whole. BEMF seeks to recreate how operas would have been staged at the time of their original performances, not just how they would have been sung and played. This is no mere mechanical application of the historicizing principle. Baroque music, closely tied as it is to court ceremony and dance, implies an entire mode of being in the world. The company’s stage director, Gilbert Blin, and its choreographers, Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante, research the gestural rhetoric of courtly etiquette and the iconography of classical myth with as much intensity as its musical directors, Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette, devote to seventeenth-century bowing techniques and appoggiaturas.
The results, as Niobe’s recent run in Boston demonstrated, are breathtakingly beautiful and dramatically compelling. Niobe’s stellar cast, seductively powdered and rouged and led by the mesmerizing French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, moved with grace and elegant artifice, even as their characters were in the throes of startlingly raw emotion—a tension between form and emotional content that lies at the core of Baroque music. The superb BEMF orchestra played with energy and nuance. It is hard to imagine a more perfect introduction to this little-known composer and gem of an opera.
Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) was born in the Veneto region of Italy and spent his earliest musical training as a chorister in Padua and Venice. At the ripe age of 13, he entered the musical service of the Elector of Bavaria in Munich and would spend the rest of his musical—and later, his diplomatic—career in Germany. During his lifetime, his chamber duets were performed throughout Europe; a Hamburg music critic referred to him in 1737 as “world-famous and musically learned.” Steffani wrote Niobe for Prince Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria, an amateur musician and generous music patron. Maximilian undoubtedly saw himself mirrored in the opera’s triumphal Prince Creonte, who restored true religion to Thebes, just as Maximilian had successfully battled the Turks in the ongoing skirmishes between the Ottoman Empire and Central Europe’s Holy League. Queen Niobe’s blasphemous pretensions to establish a new religion in Thebes would also have conjured up Protestantism’s growing challenge to the Catholic faith for audiences in Maximilian’s firmly Catholic Bavaria.
Steffani was a priest as well as composer, which suggests how differently that vocation was understood in the seventeenth century. Niobe’s libretto, written by a court secretary in Munich, Luigi Orlandi, contains some of the most voluptuously erotic writing since Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. Indeed, Poppea, written 45 years earlier, is a constant presence throughout the work, whether recalled in the flamboyantly flawed central characters or in the outbreaks of wildly syncopated percussion and the unpredictable, almost modal harmonies. O’Dette and Stubbs accompanied many recitative passages with vigorously strummed Baroque guitar, adding to the Dionysian atmosphere. Such bursts of energy were balanced by moments of regal symmetry and grandeur that anticipate Handel, born three years before Niobe’s premiere and who would borrow from Steffani’s duets and arias. Though Steffani admiringly absorbed French dance forms during his stay in Paris in the late 1670s, the more fluid writing of Niobe sounds almost nothing like the French Baroque, with its regularly occurring, bittersweet cadences—because nothing, frankly, does sound like the French Baroque that is not the thing itself.
Niobe’s high point is an unworldly aria, “Sfere amiche” (friendly spheres), without counterpart before or since. Theban King Anfione, renown in classical myth for his supernatural musical powers, has abdicated his throne to devote himself to celestial contemplation. In a vision of mystical transcendence, he calls both on the celestial spheres to give his lips their harmony and on earthly nature to take its motion from his breathing. Despite the aria’s images of rotation and movement, its musical effect is one of suspended stasis. Time and motion seem to stop as the singer (originally a castrato) holds extraordinarily long single notes above a quietly droning basso ostinato in the strings, whose tonal center eludes identification. The hypnotic, nearly monotone vocal line could be taken as a proleptic rebuke to the florid coloratura writing that would come to dominate much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opera.
This is an aria made for Philippe Jaroussky. Jaroussky has remained at the top ranks of the ever-growing countertenor surge thanks to his expressivity and the ethereally high and pure quality of his voice. To call his voice feminine is tempting but inaccurate, since it is beyond any such earthly gender markers. Here, Jaroussky shaped his long notes with subtle dynamic coloring and blended so completely with the string accompaniment that it was difficult at times to distinguish voice from instruments. His sweet demeanor as he stood almost motionless on stage, circled by children carrying planetary spheres, captured perfectly King Anfione’s dreamy, childlike nature.
Anfione’s childishness becomes more dangerous—to the point of putting the Theban realm at risk—when it is paired up with the self-centered machinations of his wife. In classical lore, Queen Niobe is known for turning to stone in grief after the gods kill her children in punishment for her impious pride. That episode, which ends the opera, seems almost an afterthought here. It is Niobe’s amoral interactions with other characters before her downfall which provide the opera’s main interest, whether she is sadistically toying with a Theban prince trying honorably to conceal his love for her, manipulating Anfione into trading his throne for an artificial shrine, or shamelessly canoodling with her husband before a captive audience of courtiers.
Soprano Amanda Forsythe tore into the role with dramatic and vocal verve, visibly relishing her power over others. Forsythe’s trills are as clear as an Alpine stream; her flashing eyes and supple vocal resources made the callous Niobe almost irresistible.
For countertenor devotees, Niobe is a dream come true, with four countertenor roles in all. Kevin Skelton sang poignantly and sweetly as the lovelorn Prince Clearte, caught in Niobe’s feral grip. Matthew White put a dark, almost dangerous hue into his voice as the conquering Thessalian Prince Creonte, with whom Niobe has a torrid fling. Stubbs and O’Dette cast the buoyant countertenor José Lemos as Niobe’s cynical nurse Nerea, following a long performance history of transvestite nurses dating back to Poppea. While Nerea mocked the female weakness for sex and a tambourine beat out a mating call, she and Niobe’s ladies-in-waiting tied brilliant red ribbons around their thighs in some of the most imaginative stage action of the production. At other times, they snapped their fans open and shut in a percussive counterpoint to discipline their suitors.
The trio of singers in the pastoral subplot were equally masterful: the perky soprano Yulia Van Doren as the innocent maiden Manto, who exquisitely accompanied herself on finger cymbals in one lament; resonant baritone Charles Robert Stephens as her father, the soothsayer Tiresia; and tenor Colin Balzer, who ably negotiated some treacherous rapid key changes as Manto’s hesitant suitor, Tiberino. Baritone Jesse Blumberg sung the avenging magician Poliferno’s outbursts with commanding ease.
Up through the nineteenth century, the real point of opera for many spectators was the ballets, which were liberally spliced throughout the action, and which in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century court theaters were often danced by the royal entourage in the audience. One of the many attractions of period stagings of Baroque opera is the opportunity to see Baroque dance, which inspired so much instrumental music of the time. The effort to recapture how Baroque dance would have looked may be only slightly less uncertain than the effort to recapture how Baroque music would have sounded. But the subtle hand gestures, erect torsos, and floating, off-kilter pirouettes of today’s reconstructed Baroque choreography—here, all appealingly executed—so embody the spirit of the music that it’s hard to imagine that they are fundamentally misleading.
Niobe’s sets—stately terra cotta and slate-blue marble columns, which alternated with tree trunks receding to a Poussinian landscape—were inspired by contemporary canvasses and prints. The company put its most lavish scenic resources into the costumes: rich brocaded burgundies and sapphires for the court and soft moss greens and sea foam for the country folk. Costume designer Anna Watkins did charming millinery work with feathers, especially Nerea’s fluffy Valkyrie-like horns nestled into her tiny cap.
The only quibble one might have with this production was its length. Stubbs and O’Dette manfully cut the score, following Steffani’s own performance cuts in the original manuscript, yet at nearly four hours, including intermission, the work still felt too long. One began to rue the lack of choral writing, which would have provided more musical variation. No opera composer of the time expected to receive the audience’s undivided attention; Steffani would have been amazed to see BEMF’s patrons quietly attending to his every note rather than chatting among themselves, playing cards, and, oh, yes, occasionally following the stage. To be sure, Wagner wrote his gargantuan works in confident belief that his audience owed him its worshipful concentration, but it’s reasonable to assume that the less monomaniacal Baroque composers would have been more economical had they foreseen the dutiful modern audience.
Such quibbles aside, BEMF’s opera productions, mounted during the week-long international early music festival that it hosts every two years in Boston, should be a pilgrimage destination for opera lovers the world over—indeed, for anyone with a passion for cultural history. There is simply nothing like BEMF’s stagings anywhere else today. Europe has been overrun by narcissistic theater directors who think that every opera, no matter when it was written, should reflect their own political and sexual hobbyhorses. Recasting a Handel opera as a denunciation of the Iraq War, say, also just happens to liberate a director from any requirement of historical knowledge.
The loving research that lies behind a BEMF production allows viewers to enter a lost world of beauty. But it is above all a musical imperative that makes historical staging of Baroque opera so powerful, by matching the nobility of the music.