French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione, the King of Thebes. (Boston Early Music Festival)
Join Classical New England and World of Opera for what you could call a “screwball tragedy,” Agostino Steffani’s 1688 Opera Niobe: Regina di Tebe (“Niobe, Queen of Thebes”), a work that lay forgotten until its revival in 2008, and subsequent North American premiere at the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival.
The opera opens with Anfione, the King of Thebes (sung brilliantly by the emerging French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky), who wants nothing more than to hang up his scepter and immerse himself in metaphysical contemplation of the harmony of the spheres. But Anfione’s celestial ambitions are dashed by a litany of earthly troubles: a foreign invasion, a kidnapping, adultery by enchantment, a dancing bear and some very angry gods.
In Steffani's opera, the King of Thebes is at turns an enlightened demi-god, an enraged, jealous husband and a bellicose warrior-king…and that's just one of many complex characters in this spectacular opera, bringing to life Ovid's timeless tale of love, pride and divided loyalties. We also get Queen-with-attitude, Niobe herself (sung by Boston favorite Amanda Forsythe), the lovesick courtier Clearte (Kevin Skelton), who pines for Niobe, the enemy prince of Thessaly (Matthew White), who also has designs on the haughty Queen; Jose Lemos is the wisecracking nurse Nerea, Colin Balzer and Yulia Van Doren as the young lovers Tibernio and Manto; Charles Robert Stephens as Manto’s father, the blind soothsayer Tiresia; and Jesse Blumberg in a crackling role as the evil magician Poliferno. Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette co-direct the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra in a production recorded by WGBH engineers at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston.
At the time he composed Orfeo ed Euridice (“Orpheus and Eurydice"), Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote, “I believe that my greatest labor should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity…and there is no rule which I have not thought it right to set aside willingly for the sake of the intended effect.” Gluck and his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, even wrote a manifesto in their intention to reclaim the story from the singers. Above all, they sought for the music and the text to be straightforward and direct: a “noble simplicity” that serves to reinforce the power of the drama.
That, at least, was the intent. What happened next was that Gluck’s “revolutionary” opera got translated (from Italian to French), compromised, and bowdlerized. As Martin Pearlman writes, “What we generally hear in performances of the opera is not the bold, innovative work that Gluck originally wrote. Rather, it is most often either a later version by Gluck himself, an adaptation by Berlioz, Liszt or others, or a composite of more than one version—all of which have watered down the succinctness and impact of the original drama.”
That’s not the case in this Boston Baroque production from March of 2012, captured in concert at the New England Conversatory’s Jordan Hall. Singing the role of Orfeo is countertenor Owen Willetts. Euridice, his opposite, is soprano Mary Wilson. The third solo role is that of Amor – Love, sung by soprano Courtney Huffman. And, as the program book notes, you will hear “Choruses of nymphs and shepherds, of monsters and furies, of Elysian heroes and heroines, and of followers of Orpheus.” Martin Pearlman conducts the orchestra and chorus of Boston Baroque.