Infanticide, petrification, magic, sex, giant disco balls, and evil spirits that go "gloop" in the night: The Royal Opera's production of "Niobe, Regina di Tebe" is both a visual and an audio sensation. It was brave of Covent Garden to put on this particular opera, given it was an unknown baroque work by one of the lesser know composers of the period. It was well worth the risk though, as there were very few empty seats at the final performance. In fact, a few of the patrons I spoke to were repeat attendees.
So what is it about this obscure work that made such an impact? And why was it important for the ROH to stage such a production during an economic downturn? To answer the first question, it is important to understand the work and its themes, the music, and the production. Niobe was the seventh opera penned by Baroque composer Agostino Steffani. Well known in his time as both a composer and a diplomat, Steffani's operas have since been forgotten: until now, that is.
The Cast and Character list was as follows:
Jacek Laszczkowski: Anfione, King of Thebes, husband of Niobe
Veronique Gens: Niobe, Queen of Thebes, wife of Anfione
Tim Mead: Clearte, Courtier to Anfione and Niobe, is in love with Niobe
Delphine Galou: Nerea, Nurse to Niobe, doesn't love anyone, and thinks that most people are cheating so-and-so's
Alastair Miles: Poliferno, Evil Sorcerer, Brother of the previous Queen of Thebes, usurped by Anfione (best character in the opera!)
Bruno Taddia: Tiresa, High Priest of Latona, tells Niobe off a lot, and gets beeten to a pulp by her, spends a lot of time rolling about on the floor
Amanda Forsythe: Manto, Tiresa's daughter, boring annoying character, in love with Tiberno
Lothar Odinius: Tiberno, Son of the King of Alba, another boring character, in love with Manto
Giant Disco Ball: Coolest thing in the Opera
The opera focuses on the King and Queen of Thebes. The King, Anfione, wants to retire from public life in order to meditate on higher matters. To facilitate this, he abdicates in favour of his wife, the beautiful Niobe. She quite enjoys this idea, and to help her, Anfione recalls his courtier, Clearte, from his self-imposed exile in the forests. The reason for Clearte's rather dramatic isolation is that he is madly in love with Niobe.
During Anfione's self-imposed seclusion, Clearte and Niobe come to tell him that Creonte, Prince of Thessaly, has raised an army to invade Thebes. Creonte is actually being helped by Poliferno, evil sorcerer and brother of the former Queen of Thebes who, along with her husband, was murdered by Anfione. As the army approaches, Anfione sings a prayer to Jove, and at the sound of his voice, the walls of Thebes magically rise up, in defence of the city. This prompts Niobe to declare her husband a God.
Niobe's declaration incurs the wrath of the goddess Latona (Leto), expressed through her Priest, Tiresa. Tiresa's insistence on giving thanks to Latona causes Niobe to beat and kick him. Not content with this, she encourages her children to do the same. Poliferno uses his diabolical magic to conjure evil spirits to drag Anfione away, while casting a glamour over Niobe, making her think that Creonte (the Prince of Thessaly, not Clearte, her courtier: confusing, isn't it) is in fact the god Mars. She has a little x-rated fun with him before fainting. Meanwhile Tiresa, Priest of Latona, informs Anfione of Poliferno's schemes, and of Niobe's inconstancy.
Suitably angry, Niobe declares war on the heaven, stating that she alone is descended from the gods. She destroys the altars of Latona and her children, Apollo and Diana. Filled with pride, Niobe calls for her ASBO children to be brought to her to witness her destructive act, and to revel in her deification. The gods, by now rather annoyed, decide to show everyone who's boss by causing fire, earthquakes, lightning, and other such terrors to reign down upon Thebes.
In the ensuing chaos, all of Niobe's children are killed. Anfione sees his little ones burnt to a cinder, and stabs himself. Niobe, realising that both her husband and children are all dead, turns to stone in despair. Creonte (Prince of Thessaly) becomes king of Thebes, and banishes Poliferno for his trickery (a tad harsh I thought considering all the help he gave him) and general alarums and trumpets sound. There is also a sub-plot involving two very annoying characters (Manto and Tiberno) having an on-off love affair. It does get a little tedious, mainly because the primary plot has so much going on.
Confusing, no? Well, it didn't really matter, as the themes dealt with were juicy enough. It was interesting to see how the production dealt with the psychological and supernatural elements of the opera. Possibly the best thing I've ever seen in opera is the use of a giant disco ball to represent the deification of Anfione. As it stood suspended mid stage, it began to spin, causing thousands of little disco ball lights to whiz around the audience. As Anfione ascended to the heavens, the disco ball went with him, while Jacek Laszczkowski, who played Anfione, unleashed a true Soprano note which received a well earned cheer. I think most of the applause was for the disco ball though...
Poliferno's evil powers were represented by a giant black gloop-monster, made up of four people in stretchy material, accompanied by a gloop sound played out around the auditorium. the gloop-monster shuffled back and forth across the stage according to Poliferno's will, and spewed him and Creonte out of its nether regions whenever Poliferno was transporting them via occult means. I did spend a lot of the opera wishing that it would eat Manto and Tiberno, but unfortunately I was unsatisfied on this point.
During the scenes where Niobe was deceived by Poliferno into thinking that Creonte was the god Mars, all three characters were dressed in gold, representing the heavens. The set was very dark, so only the protagonists were visible, along with the giant black balloons, filled with helium, which bobbed around the stage while Niobe sang. The use of black balloons showed that it was Poliferno's magic at play (gloop-monster babies came to mind), and when Poliferno and Creonte fled after their plot had been discovered, the balloons burst, leaving Niobe to face a rather rude awakening. Along with this, there was real fire on stage, trumpeters playing from the third floor balcony, and an AWOL Creonte trying to climb out of one of the boxes and into the stalls. Oh, and did I mention the giant disco ball?
Anyway, enough about the effects, lets get on to the singing! Male Soprano Jacek Laszczkowski was expressive and committed to the role of Anfione, husband of Niobe. He managed to convey the progress from king to recluse to saviour to godhood to despair convincingly and with pathos. Vocally, however, there were a few problems. In the lower register the voice cracked when trying to emote strongly on consonants which involve the closing of the lips (b, d, m etc.) and when he slipped into the modal voice at the very bottom of the range the join between the falsetto and modal voices had not been properly smoothed over. Also, in the middle register, the voice had a heavily aspirated sound which after a while sounded as if Laszczkowski was tiring. The overall performance was excellent though, and the high soprano notes were forceful, melodic and crystal clear. It was a wonderful experience to hear the role sung by a man, giving us an idea of what the composer originally intended.
My favourite aria for Anfione was the beautiful "Sfere amiche, or date al labro". Scored with unusual richness, Anfione's aria is a prayer for peace in the Palace of Harmony, as he attempts to cast off worldly cares, after having abdicated in favour of his wife, Niobe. In fact, during the aria, it was as if a spell had been cast over the audience. It's slow 6/4 time signature made for a lilting, hypnotic pace, and the continuous descending phrases shared successively by the viole and the violins added to the enchantment. Laszczkowski's voice in this aria completed the bewitchment: impossibly long-held pianissimo phrases, coupled with beguiling acting, both vocal and physical, drew the audience into the spell. It is unsurprising that "Sfere amiche" got the first spontaneous applause of the night. When the aria was over, it was akin to an awakening, a return to normal space. It reminded me of hearing Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican singing "Sposa, non mi conosci", which produced the same effect.
Two other notable arias were "Tra bellici carmi" from Act II, and "Spira gia nel propiro sangue" in Act 3."Tra bellici carmi" is a coloratura rage aria, proclaiming vengeance against Creonte (Iestyn Davies) for seducing, with Poliferno's help, his wife Niobe. Laszczkowski successfully navigates the virtuoso passages with ease, some of which seemed to last forever. This aria, more than any other sung by him, highlighted for me the possible sound of the castrati. The second aria, "Spira gia nel propiro sangue", is Anfione's death aria. Set in the obscure key of F minor, which Steffani "associated with extreme emotions and events", it is a poignant piece, sung at the moment that Anfione stabs himself, after discovering that his children have all been killed by the goddess Latona (Leto). Full of pathos, Laszczkowski's interpretation captured the audience, leaving us all with an understanding of the King's despair. Unlike most opera death arias, Anfione actually expires before completing it. If there was one criticism of the interpretation, it would be that the staccato "sobs" Laszczkowski produces sound more like an old lady cooing a child than a distressed and dying man, but it is a minor quibble.
The title role of Niobe was sung by Veronique Gens, aSoprano with great experience of the Baroque repertoire. With her seduction of Clearte (Tim Mead), her courtier and besotted aficionado, and her impassioned battering of Tiresia, Priest of the goddess Latona (Bruno Taddia), Gens' characterisation was less tragic heroine and more Joan Collins. While it was not an authentic characterisation of the Queen from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the work on which the opera was based, it made for an entertaining production. Her final aria, accompanied by continuo, "Funeste immagini", was very powerful, and like Anfione's last aria, is left unfinished as she turns to stone. The long recitative before her final aria is a little wearisome, but that was more to do with the composition than with Gens' characterisation. The relish with which she expressed each successive emotion made Gens' portrayal very enjoyable.
Of the remaining characters, my two favourites were Nerea, nurse to Niobe's children (Delphie Galou), and Poliferno (Alastair Miles). Nerea is a comic character, mostly ranting on about the inconstancy of men, and the inability of women to resist anything male with a strong pair of thighs. She does try and get Clearte to tell Niobe how much he loves her, and takes pleasure in watching him squirm, as did most of the audience. But, for all her efforts, she too ends up being kicked about by Niobe. My favourite character of the evening though was the evil magician Poliferno.
The only character to have all his arias accompanied by continuo and orchestra, Poliferno definitely makes you sit up and take notice. His excellent aria, "Evil spirits, shake the skies" was a masterclass in how to perform a Baroque Bass Rage Aria. Impossibly fast, frighteningly accurate, and demonically malevolent, Alastair Miles showcased an aria which should, now it has been rediscovered, become a staple of any baroque bass. He even got his own instrument to announce his recitatives: the otherworldly sounding Regal. At the first sounds of the instrument (played by Michael Behringer, who also played the Harpsichord and Organ in the production) practically everybody in the audience tried to see the instrument.
So why was it so important for ROH to stage this particular production? Wouldn't another topless Don Giovanni or busty Carmen have been better value? Well, no, I don't think so. Not that I have anything against topless Don's or Busty Gypsies, but we don't get to see, or hear, music like this very much. Yes, of course, we hear Baroque opera on the stage and in the concert hall, but this early Baroque music is not so well known. I think quite a few people in the audience were hearing it for the first time, and were very impressed.
To have the period instruments, and a singer that was able to perform the role as the composer originally intended (Laszczkowski), added a depth which enabled the audience to understand the times in which the opera was written. The excellent staging provided added visual stimulation, providing interest during the slower parts of the opera.
If theatres like ROH are unwilling to produce shows like this, then music by people like Steffani will either stay lost and forgotten, or be staged in dry concert performances without the spectacle with which they were originally conceived. Well done ROH for this production, and I hope you continue to push back the boundaries in the future.