|Jesse Blumberg and Amanda Forsythe in Niobe, Regina di Tebe.|
The Boston Early Music Festival's production of Agostino Steffani's Niobe, Regina di Tebe is, in a way, precisely what an accurate historical revival should be. On the one hand, it represents the resurrection of a musical ravishment; vocally and instrumentally, it is gorgeous beyond compare, and BEMF has staged it sumptuously (see photo above, and masthead). But watching it, we can't help but notice how far opera has come dramatically over the three centuries (and change) since its premiere. In short, Niobe is long - quite long, and quite meandering, too, both in terms of story and theme, and there didn't seem to be too much the production's talented director, Gilbert Blin, could do about that. Indeed, we didn't really get a bead on where the opera was even going till its last act (which is where it differs from Wagner's behemoths, which may stretch for hours but are utterly coherent thematically). Thus we wonder, as the curtain falls, whether Niobe is really viable on the modern stage, despite its musical riches.
Although baroque music fans, take note - I'm not kidding about those riches. Steffani lavishes his best writing not on his leading lady, but on her melancholy consort, Anfione, who gets to sing several mournfully beautiful arias (including one eerie show-stopper accompanied by an off-stage consort) that at times feel unlike any other music ever written. And to sing them, BEMF has engaged Philippe Jaroussky, the French early-music star whom many have called the greatest countertenor in the world. After hearing this performance, I was inclined to agree; there seems to be little of the carefully-bounded sense of control that's so common among countertenors in Jaroussky's instrument, and he sings with a movingly transparent sincerity that holds you spell-bound. Jaroussky alone makes this production an event.
But he's also surrounded by a sterling vocal cast - there were remarkable performances here from local luminary Amanda Forsythe (who sang like an angel but wasn't nearly enough of a diva to pull together her character's swings in temperament), as well as Colin Balzer, Charles Robert Stephens, Jesse Blumberg, Matthew White, and particularly the radiant Yulia van Doren. Meanwhile, down in the (non)-pit, the BEMF Orchestra played with consistently sensitive spirit.
So you couldn't have asked for a lovelier evening of (for all practical purposes, brand-new) baroque music. Was it too much to ask for a decent libretto, too? Perhaps (and to be fair, a few cuts in the score may have made the opera feel even choppier than it must have been originally). Still, one wonders at the ultimate point of resurrecting a work without fully preparing it for a new life. Should BEMF have an added mission in some cases, which might be not only to revive but revise? I hate to think that the best of Steffani's music may be forgotten once more - but without a more substantial reworking of this text, I fear that may be precisely what happens.