[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]Smorgasbord of Mythology and Mayhem
BOSTON — The theme of this year’s Boston Early Music Festival and Exhibition is “Metamorphoses: Change and Transformation,” and the temptation is to look for changes and transformations within the historically informed performance movement itself. ....
Those changes are pretty constant. In former times, when the movement claimed to be presenting faithful, authentic performances of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music, radical style shifts (on matters like whether medieval sacred works should be accompanied or how large ensembles should be) were ascribed to fresh research. Now, as often as not, new approaches simply reflect performers’ notions of which tempos, textures and approaches to phrasing make the music sound most exciting, and this is by no means a bad thing.
That said, the festival prospectus does not appear to embrace much in the way of radical reconsideration of period style. It may be that the title is meant to be taken mainly at face value, given that both of this year’s opera productions — a lavish staging of Agostino Steffani’s “Niobe, Regina di Tebe,” and Handel’s chamber opera “Acis and Galatea” — are based on stories from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” and other works promise to address transformation as well, with and without Ovid. “Niobe,” heard on Tuesday evening at the Cutler Majestic Theater of Emerson College, is the kind of alluring obscurity that has long been this festival’s calling card. It is also a work that is beginning to have a life of its own. Though this production is the work’s North American premiere, a different production was staged in 2008 at the Schwetzingen Festival in Germany and has traveled around Europe, with a stop at Covent Garden in London last September. It seems unlikely to leap into the standard repertory, but this 1688 score captures a fascinating moment in operatic history, when national styles and theatrical expectations were in flux.
Steffani, who was also a bishop and a diplomat, was a cosmopolitan eclectic. “Niobe” begins with a modified French overture, which gives way to a picturesque military battle piece of the sort favored by the Italians and the English. Dance is plentiful (another touch of French influence), and the rich vocal writing is a balance of Gallic fluidity and Italianate lyricism, with adventurous chromatic touches that keep the music both emotionally pointed and surprising.
The Italian libretto, by Luigi Orlandi, is complex and densely populated. In addition to Anfione and Niobe, the king and queen of Thebes and a two-person factory of unusual plot twists, there is Prince Clearte, who is in love with Niobe. Creonte, the prince of Thessaly, is about to attack Thebes and is traveling with Poliferno, a magician, who has enchanted Creonte into believing that he too is in love with Niobe.
Tiberino, a wandering prince, rescues Manto, an innocent young maiden, from a bear attack, and the two immediately fall in love but take their time confessing it. That would seem a trivial plot point, except that the young lovers and Manto’s father, Tiresia, priest of the goddess Latona, are swept into the chaos of the Thebes-Thessaly war. And Nerea, Niobe’s nurse, would seem even more peripheral were she not both the source of several conspiracies and a comic foil.
In the final moments the god Apollo and the goddess Diana turn up to exact revenge on the hapless Niobe for having declared herself superior to the gods. They kill her 12 children (whereupon Anfione kills himself in despair) and turn her to stone. (Creonte wins his war by default.)
The festival has assembled a finely balanced cast with no weaknesses. Even so, the clear standout was the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who sang powerfully and sweetly and created a nuanced portrayal of the puzzlingly indolent, vain and, in the end, less puzzlingly bitter Anfione.
Amanda Forsythe used her shapely soprano to superb effect in a characterization of Niobe that was as flexible as Mr. Jaroussky’s Anfione. Here is a thoroughly unlikable character, opportunistic, mean spirited, vindictive and self-absorbed: Poppea magnified, really. Yet the music Steffani gives her is so plangent, and Ms. Forsythe sings it so supplely, that you cannot help feeling at least a little sympathy for her in her final scene.
The other characters are more thinly drawn, but Kevin D. Skelton, the tenor, sang the amorous sad-sack Clearte with a regal bearing, and Matthew White’s pure countertenor brought Creonte a measure of nobility in the final scene. The two baritones — Charles Robert Stephens as Tiresia and Jesse Blumberg as Poliferno — brought out their characters’ antithetical qualities (good and evil) without overstating them.
Yulia Van Doren, a soprano, was a lovely, ingenuous Manto, with Colin Balzer, a tenor, as her more worldly suitor, Tiberino. And José Lemos, a countertenor, provided the work’s comic touches as Nerea. How often do you see a production with three fine countertenors?
The work is cleanly and evocatively staged by Gilbert Blin, whose sets — like Anna Watkins’s colorful costumes — evoke both Baroque splendor and an idealized vision of ancient Greece. There is no such split focus in the work’s many dance scenes: Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante’s choreography is steeped in the niceties of Baroque style.
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, the festival’s artistic directors, split the conducting (and otherwise played theorbo and Baroque guitar) and drew a robust, perfectly balanced sound from the small period-instrument band.