Review: Baroque opera shines in premiere

The Boston Early Music Festival presented a marvelous and sumptuous production of Agostino Steffani’

The Boston Early Music Festival presented a marvelous and sumptuous production of Agostino Steffani’s “Niobe, Queen of Thebes,” Friday night at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.

Related story

For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman’s preview of this show, click here.

The baroque opera, which premiered in 1688 and has seen few performances since, received its North American premiere.

No money was spared to give a visual impact that was like watching a great master’s oil painting come to life. Gilbert Blin’s ingenious sets, which went from a palace to a wood to a celestial haven, changed in seconds. Anna Watkins’ costumes were opulent and rich in a palette of reds, wines, browns, golds and whites.

There was dancing in appropriate baroque choreography and a cloud machine that allowed singers to descend or elevate in god-like fashion. There was a welcome and high level of humor, most of it built into the libretto, which was written by Luigi Orlandi. But Blin, who also directed, encouraged that dry wit, which was like an elf peeping out from behind the curtain.

Most of all, there was the music. Steffani, who died 283 years ago and before this festival might have evoked a response of “who’s he?” created beautiful melodies colored by interesting rhythms, chromatic harmonies and a few fanciful, Spanish-flavored numbers. The arias and recitatives were difficult, often exploring the upper reaches with substantial ornamentation that involved brilliantly fast scales up and down a singer’s range.

The nine principal singers — two women and seven men — in the four-hour show were up to the task. Soprano Amanda Forsythe as Queen Niobe had a strong, intense, sometimes arrogant presence and a voice that was agile and velvety. With her large eyes and expressive face, she was most effective in her languid, tender moments as she cuddled up to each of the three men she had designs on.

Countertenor Jose Lemos, in the female role of Nerea, Niobe’s nurse, stole every scene he/she was in. His stylized movements, forceful lyrical exclamations and the obvious fun he was having in the part convinced the capacity crowd.

The star of the show, however, was the amazing and fantastic countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione, the king. Besides his silken and supple voice, with its incredible range and power, Jaroussky mesmerized with dynamic levels of magical softness and sustained golden tones — all in complete control. He supported this with a committed passion to his acting that gave his character outlines and shape.

The singers would have been nowhere without the formidable 30-piece baroque orchestra under the direction of Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Its rich sound, bouncy way with the pulses, strong coordination between the orchestra and the singers, and vibrant and vigorous energy made it a powerhouse.

Today at 3:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 7 p.m., the festival will present the 1718 semi-staged chamber version of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” — one of Handel’s most beloved pastoral operas. With only 10 singers and nine musicians, but still with fabulous costumes, the festival took it on the road in 2009 to much acclaim.

Categories: Entertainment

Leave a Reply