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You wait 300 years for a recording of Niobe, Regina di Tebe and then two come along at once! Steffani’s opera, premiered at Munich in 1688, is a fabulous cornucopia of baroque entertainment, brimming with sexual chicanery, political revenge, spectacular effects and enchanting music. The libretto by Luigi Orlandi, based on a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, calls for magical and supernatural elements, including monsters, an ‘immense ghost’ whose mouth is an abyss, city walls elevated by song and a climactic earthquake, during which ‘spiteful gods’ hurl down thunderbolts to kill Niobe’s children. Astonishingly, the real coups de théâtre follow this murderous mayhem: first, Anfione, Niobe’s husband, stabs himself and the music evokes his blood seeping away as he expires, leaving his last aria incomplete; then Niobe too breaks down in her last aria as, numbed by grief, she feels herself turning to stone.

Steffani is seen as a precursor to Handel and his music for Niobe certainly has the tuneful arias and rich scoring we associate with Handelian opera. In one remarkable scene, Anfione invokes the harmony of the spheres, accompanied by ‘viole’ and ‘bassi’ onstage, recorders and other strings in the pit; their alternating, contrary motions suggest the rotation of the planets in a music of unearthly beauty.

These two recordings both feature fine teams of performers, although there are crucial differences. Jacek Laszczkowski’s soprano is an extraordinary voice, and his tone of ethereal hauteur may be an acquired taste; I found him a less expressive Anfione than countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who is especially poignant in the suicide scene, where Laszczkowski’s melismatic death throes sound rather like a cooing pigeon. Véronique Gens is a moving Niobe, her dark, burnished soprano full of character; however, Karina Gauvin sings strongly—and in a clearer acoustic. The O’Dette-Stubbs set is a studio recording, with immaculate sound quality, whereas the Hengelbrock is a live recording (from Covent Garden in 2010) and comes with onstage noises and a volume level that fluctuates as the singers move around. As a result, it can’t match the degrees of detail and subtlety that mark the Erato studio performance. The Opus Arte set is also 60 minutes shorter (the libretto has been drastically cut), yet it’s almost twice as expensive (full-price as opposed to mid-price). So the O’Dette-Stubbs version is my clear recommendation; it’s a magnificent account of Steffani’s enthralling, long-neglected opera.

Graham Lock Read the full review on Agora Classica


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