Monday, 4 October 2010

Niobe Regina di Tebe - why it works

The Royal Opera House was packed out yesterday for the last performance of Niobe, Regina di Tebe Many musicians in the audience, many others back for repeat performances, including one Famous Writer returning at his own expense (shock!). Niobe was certainly a wild card. Baroque tends to be box office poison, and completely unknown baroque is almost certainly doomed. But what an opera and what a staging! This will be one of my "bests" for the year.

Read HERE for a well-informed analysiis of the music and performance. What I'll do is figure why it worked so well.

Intensely committed playing by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, founded by conductor Thomas Hengelbrock  who unearthed the score. They unveiled Niobe at Schwetzingen in 2008 where they wowed a specialist audience innured to baroque rarities. The London audience certainly aren't specialists but enjoyed the music on its own terms. What verve, what vivacity! Fanfares played from up in the balcony, drums heard off-stage creating the tensions of war. Strange, unearthly sounds that accompany the Spirits in black - "underwater" sounds made by ancient instruments but which sound totally up to the minute. Baroque reiterations can be mind-numbingly boring, but this performance zipped along. Possibly Hengelbrock edited it, but that's good, since it liberates the inherent drama in the music.

Even the plot's dramatic, by opera standards (often pretty daft). Niobe takes on the Gods, challenging them with her beauty, ancestry and fertility. Bad deal. Husband, kingdom and all 14 of her kids are destroyed and Niobe's turned to stone. In Greek myth her Earth Mother aspects are played up. Agostino Steffani plays up her Sex Goddess image, which makes for racier theatre. After all, she's mesmerizingly beautiful and her lovers think she'll replace Venus. Erotically explicit love duets, elements of farce as her husband Anfione (Jacek Laszczkowski) interrupts a tryst. The kids aren't much in evidence in this production because Steffani probably knew the sex sells better. Niobe's a riot, tauntingly placing the crown of Thebes on current boyfriend, shocking Anfione more than the fact that she sleeps around.

Véronique Gens plays Niobe. She's statuesque (bad pun on what happens later), an imposing imperatice. After all, Jupiter was her ancestor. Gens has been singing baroque since her youth, one of the best in the business.. Absolute purity of tone, clarity, depth of expression. Although she sings almost without a break, her stamina doesn't flag. Indeed, her energy electrified all around her, making her fate all the more ironic. In the final scene she holds her arms at an odd angle, frozen mid-stance by the Gods' curse. Then everyone else seems to freeze frame, too, around her.

This being baroque, expect ultra-high male voices. Jacek Laszczkowski is a male soprano. Of course he sings higher than any other man in town: in comparison counter tenors like Iestyn Davies (Creonte) and Tim Mead (Clearte) sound almost butch. To modern ears hearing men sing like women may be disconcerting but in the baroque age that's exactly what made them heroes - only rough guys sing bass, like Alastair Miles's Poliferno, garbed as a sinister angel.

Baroque means spectacle. Silver balls rotate, and a huge glitterball moves, lit so that lights reflect all round the ROH auditorium, transforming it into fantasy light show. Real flames, and balloons that explode. Theatre with panache, but also true to the plot, for the balloons are  like Niobe's delusions, punctured by fate.

Lots of humour, too, to liven the pace. Delphine Galou is Nerea, whose job is to mind the kids while Niobe cavorts. Nicely burlesque acting, an earthy foil to Niobe's high falutin' graces. Anfione's dying aria is jazzed up with mock-sobbing, Laszczkowski 's voice bobbing up and down, as if Steffani's suggesting that the King, too, is another of Niobe's babes.

Violence, too. Niobe kicks Tiresia the priest (Bruno Taddia), followed by Nerea and the kids (only 4 on show). Wonderful  dance sequences, black clad figures manipulating flaccid bodies, later all emerging from a billowing black silk sac: all images linked to themes in the drama (Choreographer -Thomas Stache)

Spectacular production, baroque beats West End! Yet for all the gorgeousness, the set is remarkably minimal. A wall with shuttered windows, the only furnishings two chairs.  The main "effects" like the glitter dome appear only when  needed. The rest is up to Raimund Bauer's lighting designs, as imaginative and lively as Lukas Hemlab's direction. Costumes (Andrea Schmidt-Futterer) are gorgeous, but the lighting enhances even these, bathing them in glowing gold. Proof that minimal can be astonishingly luscious.

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