227. Niobe, regina di Tebe (Steffani)

  • Opera in 3 acts
  • Composer: Agostino Steffani
  • Libretto: Luigi Orlandi, after Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • First performed: Salvatortheater, Munich, Germany, 5th January 1688

NIOBE, queen of Thebes, brave but arrogant; punished by the gods for her prideSoprano
ALFIONE, king [of Thebes]; abdicates in favour of his wife Niobe; returns to protect Thebes from attackSoprano castrato
MANTO, a Theban maiden, daughter of [Tiresia]; priestess to the goddess Latona; falls in love with TiberinoSoprano
TIRESIA, blind Theban soothsayer, and priest of Latona, Matona’s father; warns Niobe that her pride will anger the godsBass
CLEARTE, a Theban prince and adviser to Anfione; secretly in love with NiobeTenor
CREONTE, son of the king of Thessaly, bewitched into helping Poliferno attack ThebesAlto castrato
POLIFERNO, prince of Attica, magician; harbours a grudge against Anfione and sets out to overthrow himBass
TIBERINO, son of the king of Alba; dreams of conquering Thebes; falls in love with MantoTenor
NEREA, nurse of Niobe; advises the man charactersContralto

SETTING: Thebes


Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Niobe, all tears…

William Shakespeare, HAMLET

The late 17th century was a period of courtly opera: lavish spectacles for the edification of kings and nobles, based on mythology, and incorporating novel special effects (gods descending from the heavens in machines, etc.) The most famous examples are Lully’s tragédies lyriques, honouring Louis XIV; while in England, Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Purcell’s Dido and Æneas were written for the Stuart monarchs. Around the same time, Steffani, a priest, was employed as court musician to the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian II Emmanuel.

Niobe, Steffani’s eighth opera, was his first opera based on Greek myth. Loosely based, rather.

According to Ovid, the gods punished Niobe for her arrogance. She insulted Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, refusing to worship her (was Niobe not the daughter of Tantalus, who had eaten the food of the gods, and one of the Pleiades? Were her grandfathers not Zeus himself and the Titan Atlas?), and boasting that she was a better mother (she had seven sons and seven daughters, while Leto only had one of each). In retribution, Apollo and Artemis slew all of Niobe’s children, shooting them dead with arrows; and Niobe’s husband, Amphion, stabbed himself in his despair. The bereaved Niobe turned to stone:

Childless, she sat among the bodies of her sons, her daughters, and her husband, frozen in grief.

The breeze stirs not a hair, the colour of her cheeks is bloodless, and her eyes are fixed motionless in her sad face: nothing in that likeness is alive. Inwardly her tongue is frozen to the solid roof of her mouth, and her veins cease their power to throb. Her neck cannot bend, nor her arms recall their movement, nor her feet lead her anywhere. Inside, her body is stone. Yet she weeps, and, enclosed in a powerful whirlwind, she is snatched away to her own country: there, set on a mountain top, she wears away, and even now tears flow from the marble

Ovid, METAMORPHOSES, VI, trans. A. S. Kline
Death of the Niobids, wall painting from Pompeii.

In the libretto by Orlandi, a court secretary, the myth only occupies the last half hour of an extremely long opera, running 3 hours and 42 minutes. The rest of the opera is a typically convoluted Baroque affair: Niobe’s husband, Alfione, abdicates; she has an affair with her co-regent, prince Clearte (tenor); another prince, Creonte (castrato), is also in love with Niobe, because of a spell cast by an enchanter, Poliferno, who is also a prince; and a fourth prince, Tiberino, invades Thebes, while falling in love with the priestess Manto. The usual comic nurse / man in drag shrewdly comments on the lovers and their excesses.

17th century audiences wanted opera to be full of spectacle, “apparitions and strange illusions”. Thus, an enormous monster suddenly turns into a host of warriors; an immense ghost appears from underground, and its mouth becomes a secret passage; the walls of Thebes rise by magic; and in the final scene, earthquakes topple buildings, and the gods shoot down Niobe’s children.

The Boston Early Music Festival’s 2011 production, starring Philippe Jaroussky and Karina Gauvin, looks sumptuous:

Unfortunately, no DVD exists, only a 2013 recording with the same cast. Musically, it is an opera for aficionados of 17th-century opera (an acquired taste), not the general public, or even lovers of 18th-century Baroque opera.

Niobe consists of more than 50 arias (many of them less than two minutes long, like Lully’s ariettes), three duets, and a few ballets. The arias maintain a consistent standard: they are well-crafted, pretty, but not memorable. Most are of the same character: generic love songs, inserted with little relevance to the action. The recitative is sometimes more interesting than the following aria: lyrical, and with words ornamented.

Colin Timms (in his article for the CD recording) considers Niobe’s score to be “exceedingly rich. Its musical language reaches heights of intensity in melody and harmony, and its orchestration is exceptionally finely conceived and precisely notated”. He remarks that Steffani uses solo instruments as an obbligato accompaniment to the vocal line (a novelty at the time), and that his taste for French dances influences the score.

The more notable pieces are Anfione’s very beautiful “Sfere amiche” (YouTube), the major aria in Act I, and his prayer, “Come padre, e come dio”, summoning the stones to build the walls of Thebes; “Dal mio petto o pianti uscite”, “Stringo al seno un nume amante”, the rage aria “Trà bellici carmi” (YouTube), and the fun shepherds’ dance (Act II); and Anfione’s death scene and the ballet of soldiers that ends the opera.

Steffani the man seems more interesting than his music; he was a priest and a diplomat, as well as a composer. Born in 1654, he sang as a chorister at St. Mark’s, Venice, in his youth; a German nobleman, Count Georg Ignaz von Tattenbach, so admired his voice that he had him educated in Munich in literature and theology, and in music under Ercole Bernabei in Rome (1672–74). The young man was ordained an Abate (Abbot) in 1680.

Painting by Gerhard Kappers (circa 1714)

Much of Steffani’s early music was written for the Catholic church (Psalms for eight voices; masses for the Elector of Bavaria’s chapel) or for the court of Munich (sonatas for four instruments; duets accompanied by basso continuo). He was praised for his chamber works, considered “the most celebrated of that species of writing”, Burney notes, while a treatise comparing musical imitation and expression to mathematical principles was reprinted several times in Germany.

Steffani wrote his first opera, Marco Aurelio, in 1681; it was so successful the Elector of Bavaria made him his director of chamber music. Servio Tullio (1686) was written for the Elector’s marriage to Maria Antonia of Austria.

Like certain artists, Fétis notes, Steffani had other ambitions than artistic glory. A few months after Niobe’s première, Steffani became Kapellmeister to Ernest Augustus, the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, the father of George I. In 1689, Steffani served as a diplomat for Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who wanted to create a ninth electorate in favour of the Duke of Brunswick and his descendants. The other electors were not in favour, but Steffani, who had studied law in Hanover, and enjoyed the prince’s favour, negotiated so skilfully that in 1692, the emperor invested the Duke of Brunswick with the election of Hanover, and made him arch-treasurer of the empire. The grateful Duke obtained for Steffani the rank of bishop of Spiga (in modern day Turkey), conferred by Pope Innocent XII, and a pension of 1,500 ecus. Upon Ernest Augustus’s death in 1698, Steffani served as privy councillor and protonotary of the Holy See in the court of the Elector Palatine, John William, at Düsseldorf; and then as Victor Apostolic of Upper and Lower Saxony from 1709 to 1723. In 1720, he resigned his posts as Kapellmeister and music director – naming Handel his successor – and lived in court. He was elected the first president of the Academy of Vocal (later Ancient) Music in London.

In 1727, he returned to Italy, for the first time in many years; he spent winter in Rome, in the company of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, a great patron of music and art, and an admirer of Steffani’s music. Soon after his return, on a diplomatic mission to Frankfurt, Steffani fell ill, and died in 1728.


Recordings

Listen to: Karina Gauvin (Niobe), Philippe Jaroussky (Anfione), Amanda Forsythe (Manto), Aaron Sheehan (Clearte), Terry Wey (Creonte), Jesse Blumberg (Poliferno), Colin Balzer (Tiberino), and José Lemos (Nerea), with the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, conducted by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Bremen, 2013; Erato 2564634354.


Works consulted

  • Charles Burney, A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (1789), Dover 1957
  • F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
  • Colin Timms, “Steffani, Opera, and Niobe”, Erato, 2015
  • Agostino Steffani”, Wikipedia.

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