Mahaiwe Theater, Great Barrington, MA
June 24, 2011
by Michael J. Moran
The Boston Early Music Festival's superb production of Agostino Steffani's Niobe: Queen of Thebes consistently rewarded the attention of those lucky enough to catch this rare revival. Introduced in Munich in 1688, Niobe received its North American premiere at BEMF's 16th biennial festival.
With a libretto by Luigi Orlandi, the tragedy of Niobe follows the queen from contented wife of Anfione, King of Thebes, and mother of their children, to vanquished victim of the gods for calling her husband and herself divine. Along the way, she falls for Creonte, Prince of rival Thessaly, disguised as the god Mars by the magician Poliferno, himself disguised as the god Mercury. The audience also meets the Theban soothsayer Tiresia and his daughter Manto, who is saved from a wild bear (later providing comic relief as a dancer!) by Tiberino, Prince of Alba. Their blossoming love and Tiresia's enforcement of the gods' will eventually triumph, with Creonte as the newly wise King of Thebes after the gods in vengeance have killed Niobe's children, Anfione in despair has killed himself, and Niobe in her grief turns to stone.
Among the uniformly fine cast, the vivid acting and vocal characterizations of soprano Amanda Forsythe as Niobe and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione were especially powerful. Other notable performances were given by baritone Jesse Blumberg as Poliferno, soprano Julia Van Doren as Manto, and countertenor Jose Lemos as a very funny Nerea, Niobe's nurse, whose observations to the audience often sound surprisingly contemporary, for example: "These modern Boys make a sport of deception" (Act II, Scene XVI).
From the bracingly brisk overture to the stately closing dance, the guttural sounds of the BEMF orchestra powerfully conveyed the range and beauty of Steffani's music. Highlights included the antiphonal brass at various offstage locations and the cushion of lush strings supporting Anfione's mesmerizing aria in the Palace of Harmony in Act I.
Major contributions to the production's success were also made by choreographers Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante and the stylish dancers of the BEMF Dance Ensemble, and by stage director Gilbert Blin, who also designed the functional yet elegant sets.