Friday, 24 September 2010

Niobe, Regina di Tebe, ROH

The Royal Opera have done well with this production of an obscure, 3½-hour long opera by Agostino Steffani (1654–1728). There must be quite a temptation to throw everything at it, investing in the ongoing vogue for adding dancers, or dazzling with costume, set design or direction to distract from that dreaded da capo (or aria-as-original-cast-mollifying-folly).

At least that was my worry before I saw this production. Its obscurity is no indication of its worth - no charge of 'justly neglected' here. It's inventive, with both unusual instrumentation and trying all sorts of barmy things with the conventional orchestra. Conventional recapitulations in the arias seem to be discreet or to be written out. My da capo fears never ripened - the music seemed to develop rather than repeat itself.

In this the score is helped by a super staging. Lukas Hemleb does employ moments of opulence, often as wonderful coups (invariably involving large balls, that's all I'm saying). Yet he's clearly aware that the story, and the music that tells it, have their own weight so we get an unfussy space in which to hear it. The cast are similarly costumed in striking but not over-detailed designs, a mentality also applied to props and lighting. Economy is the highly effective watchword of this production.

Economy, expedience but not 'budget'. There's no paucity of imagination. Hemleb uses the auditorium space around the pit for surprise entries and has a particularly simple-but-cunning use for a modest dancing troupe as an underhand plot makes its demonic passage through the story. This got many a laugh - but like a lot of the humour that Hemleb sets free from the work it's a joke shared with the audience, never cheap irony at the work's expense.

The singing is good. Véronique Gens has a gilded way of understating her singing which makes a great dramatic impact - I really felt the hubris of her character and position. Opposite her is the remarkable sound of Polish countertenor-soprano Jacek Laszczkowski as king Anfione. Early concerns that this was a some miscast hooty falsettist evaporate during a handful of central arias in which a strong command of line and beautifully worked super-high tessitura make for special moments. The undulating aria he sings in the aptly named Palace Of Harmony is particularly fine.

There are two more (perhaps) conventional falsettists in the cast. Tim Mead's consistent, present Clearte is also nicely worked on stage, agitated but not over-sympathetic. In this production, I was afraid that Iestyn Davies' Creonte was destined to be an amusing cameo. He certainly came close to scene stealing his way through his parodic entrances through the first half of the opera but then takes his opportunities in the increasingly serious second to sing with supple coloratura and a silken top. Alastair Miles and Delphine Galou proved luxurious casting for the manipulative functionaries the former gamely wearing a London Marathon novelty outfit as the demonic Poliferno.

The Tiberno-Manto-Tiresia trio (of Lothar Ordinus, Amanda Forsythe and Bruno Taddia) occupy an odd position in the opera, a foil for the supernatural events in which they are caught up. This along with Nerea's affected limp, an anomaly in being superfluously invented for a later aria, and the modernist forecurtain with TEBE cut into it were my only reservations. Thomas Henglebrock and the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble are indefatigable.

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