When Thomas Hengelbrock, director and founder of the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, rediscovered and conducted Niobe for the Schwetzingen Festival in 2008 the Royal Opera House took the unusual step of offering the production a London stage. It was a brave and uncharacteristically adventurous decision, which reverses their previous low-key approach to Baroque music.
Niobe’s story is not a happy one; she is the historical figure of mourning whose arrogance cost her dearly as, ultimately, her defiance of the Gods led to the slaughter of her children. In this retelling, based on the Metamorphoses of Ovid, neither composer Agostino Steffani or librettist Luigi Orlandi shy away from the cruel aspects of this tale so that the opera offers few opportunities for the quick-humour that modern audiences enjoy.
One reason for this is that Steffani was writing for the court, not for the public, which largely excused the need for titillation. Having said that, director Lukas Hemleb’s ingenious production found many light-hearted opportunities.
Coming from Schwetzingen’s smaller stage a substantial redesign was required. Raimund Bauer’s sets and lighting were absolutely magnificent and coupled with sumptuous costumes, offered an elegant visual feast. Musically too, one would be hard-pushed to find a better period-orchestra.
Steffani busies his instrumentalists with many exceedingly short arias; the average generally being just a couple of minutes long and he calls for a beautiful range of instrumental colours from regal to recorder. Yet it was the plucked instruments that really stood out; harp, theorbo and guitar. Under Hengelbrock’s direction this music had some seriously funky moments and considering Steffani’s unendingly imaginative use of dance meters it was, at times, amazing to think that he was writing before Handel.
Véronique Gens in the title role of the Queen of Thebes was quite simply superb. She was radiant, beautiful, and powerful. Jacek Laszczkowski, as her husband Anfione was suitably pathetic in comparison and he certainly played the role well – a weak king tired of ruling, seeking bigger answers in spirituality. Yet I found myself uncomfortable with his vocal performance. Had he been a countertenor in the usual sense then one could simply say that his two British colleagues, Iestyn Davies and Tim Mead out-sang him with ease.
Mead’s rich tone was sublime and Davies is simply the full package - stage presence, vocal prowess and keen musicianship. However, Laszczkowski isn’t part of that tradition at all, he is a male soprano and that makes comparison difficult. Certainly he has high notes, and we heard plenty of them but quite often they were more like controlled squealing (think of Cyndia Sieden in Ades’ The Tempest) and his stratosphere was compromised by awkward gear-changes into his more-or-less non-existent middle register and gruff chesty notes at the bottom.
That he can sing this role is in itself a remarkable achievement but if you forget the high notes for a moment then the bulk of his performance was pretty much unintelligible and poorly focused. If we are going to hear a male soprano then I would prefer to have one of Michael Maniaci’s caliber.
Despite falsetto-overload, this was a superb production and bringing it to London was a stroke of brilliance by the ROH. I can only hope that that this sort of inspired collaboration might happen again. London has indeed got a ‘world stage’.
- Ed Breen