Until this performance, I hadn’t heard any music by Agostino Steffani; however, unlike many of the operas I’ve blogged, in this case apparently neither had most people there, which makes me feel slightly less of an ignoramus. Apparently this opera hasn’t been performed for >300 years, which, while exciting – almost like a premiere of a new work – begs the question, is there perhaps a good reason why not? Answer: although Niobe is unlikely ever to make my list of favourite operas, there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, the music’s quite interesting, being post-Monteverdi, pre-Handel, having a touch of Rameau, and (although not really my period) sounds to me as if more influenced by the pop music of its day than much opera, having movements with many hemiolas, syncopations, and other funky dance beats of the 1600s. In addition to the usual strings, baroque oboes and recorders – all played pretty damn well by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble under Hengelbrock – there were a varied collection of stringed and keyboard continuo things, including theorbos, harp, and what sounded like a Hammond organ without the Leslies but seemed to be a small portable pipe organ, plus plenty of percussion including a somewhat over-enthusiastic tambourine. Have I ever mentioned that I really dislike tambourines in orchestras? Yes, even more than triangles – sometimes they can actually make me feel nauseous. But that’s my problem, not Steffani’s.
So, there’s three plot strands. In one, King Anfione (J Laszczkowski – sings like girl, dresses like girl) has had enough of being king and goes walkabout, leaving wife Queen Niobe (V Gens – pleasant soprano, dresses like toilet doll) in charge, and goes to the trouble of providing her an assistant in the form of slightly less squeaky, slightly better-looking bloke Clearte (T Mead – not unpleasant high voice, dresses like tramp) who well fancies Niobe, which looks like it’s going to be an important part of the plot but isn’t.They all live in a dingy black palace, attended by comedy nurse/masseuse/gossip Nerea (D Galou – really very enjoyable mezzo voice, hammy acting).
[My genuine apologies to any countertenors/male sopranos/falsettists /etc. reading this. Like with the tambourines, it’s clearly my problem, probably due to some genetic defect, that I remain unable to appreciate your sounds.]
Plot strand two. Tiberino (L Odinius – pleasantish tenor with terrible mullet) rescues Manto (A Forsythe – very nice soprano, weird child-woman behaviour) from a monster in the forest. We don’t see the monster. For that matter, we don’t see the forest, just a black screen with the letters TEBE cut out. They have a tedious romance, with dubious comedy provided by Manto’s dad Tiresia (B Taddia – pleasantish grumpy bass-baritone, adorned in trailing bandages), who is blind and so obviously keeps walking into stuff and tripping over.
Plot strand three. Poliferno (A Miles – a jolly good Evil Bass, dresses in Evil Black, with wings) and Creonte (I Davies – not unpleasant high voice, funny black wig/hat/?) are attacking Thebes, with the help of the operatic equivalent of the black-smoke-monster-from-Lost-on-the-telly, as depicted by some dancers inside a big black stretchy bag. With actual wobbly sound effects – or no, surely I must have imagined those? Having not read the plot beforehand, I thought the black blobby monster had eaten Creonte, but when he turned up again in the next act I realised it must have just been transporting him from hither to thither.
Poliferno’s plan involves Creonte dressing up in gold robes and pretending to be the god Mars, seducing Niobe with his ersatz divinity, and sweeping her off to a room of the palace which has been cunningly done up to resemble heaven – i.e. full of huge shiny balloons. Well, why not? Everyone likes balloons. There’s a disco ball as well, I think, although that might have been a different scene. Niobe is now dressed as toilet doll as designed by Ann Summers, with a gold anatomically-correct boob tube above the excessive frilliness. Anyway, it all goes horribly wrong, the balloons all get popped, and half the cast become dead in quick succession (via, in Anfione’s case, some rather lovely and startlingly modern-sounding music) including A&N’s lightning-struck kids, who did nothing worse than beating up blind Tiresia… oh, hang on, they were clearly horrid brats. Creonte is king, and it all makes complete sense – hurrah!
I would actually quite like to hear the music from Niobe again. See it, in this production – not so much.