Steffani: Niobe, Regina di Tebe

Véronique Gens Niobe, Jacek Laszczkowski Anfione, Iestyn Davies Creonte, Alastair Miles Poliferno, Delphine Galou Nerea, Lothar Odinius Tiberino, Amanda Forsythe Manto, Bruno Taddia Tiresia, Tim Mead Clearte, Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble, Thomas Hengelbrock
167:18 (3 CDs)
Opus Arte OA CD9008D

This is a recording of the recent Covent Garden production, directed by Lukas Hemleb. With an excellent team of soloists and the fine Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble, under Thomas Hengelbrock’s reliable baton, this ought to have been a winner. As one would expect, there is some extremely fine singing. Véronique Gens is a wonderful Niobe, moving with complete assurance from her initial imperious confidence to the utter desolation of the final act, where she witnesses the deaths of her husband and children and is herself turned to stone. Iestyn Davies is a similarly subtle Creonte. His ‘Lascio l’armi e cedo il campo’ in Act 2 is thrillingly done, and his trumpet-and-drum accompanied ‘Di palmi e d’allori’ brings the opera to a rousing conclusion. Lothar Odinius and Amanda Forsythe, as Tiberino and Manto, respectively, make a finely matched pair of young lovers. Bruno Taddia is suitably solemn as Tiresia, Manto’s father. Alastair Miles makes a sonorous Poliferno, almost overwhelming the band in his Act 2 ‘Numi tartarei’. Tim Meade (Clearte) rises nobly to his tragic accompagnato in Act 3, as he witnesses the deaths of Niobe’s sons. Delphine Galou is absolutely perfect as the nurse Nerea; her witty commentaries on the foibles of her ‘betters’ (e. g., the final aria of Act 2) are highlights of the recording. About Jacek Laszczkowski’s Anfione, I am less sure. The part was probably written for the castrato Clementin Hader and Steffani has given him some terrific music, much of it in up-to-the-minute fully accompanied da capo style. He has the pearl of the score, the glorious ‘Sfere Amiche’ in Act 1, sung in the Palace of Harmony, with a stage band in addition to the orchestra in the pit. Although possessing a formidable technique, and wondrous tone, Laszczkowski sometimes sounds slightly under the note, and his da capo decorations can be inventive, to say the least (e. g., in ‘Ascendo alle stelle’ in Act 2.) His virtuoso ‘Tra bellici carmi’ in Act 2 is absolutely first class, however.

The overall production is variable. There is a good deal of extraneous stage noise (poor Tiresias’s graphic mugging at the beginning of Act 2 seems to go on forever!) The score has been significantly cut, losing some arias and ballet music, and the scoring occasionally tweaked, with much organ continuo and some additional percussion.

Colin Timm’s scholarly sleeve notes, however, are superb, fully illustrating the exceptional nature of Steffani’s great opera.

Alastair Harper