I don’t quite know where to begin with Niobe, Regina di Tebe, the baroque rarity that has been dug up by the Royal Opera House and polished to within an inch of its life.
Niobe is a bitch. She kicks people, literally. She also kicked out her husband, who is a male soprano, in favour of a slightly more virile countertenor. She takes it upon herself to attempt to usurp the power of the Gods. So there’s an earthquake and then she’s turned to stone. Oh, and there’s a subplot about the two drippiest lovers in all of opera, and the blind father of one of them who keeps banging into things. I think that more or less covers it.
The music that keeps this ‘drama’ ticking along is not – to put it flatteringly – of the first order. It occasionally has flashes of second order, but is mostly third rate, rambling along in generic baroque style, but with reduced ornamentation. Where it does reach something more interesting are the slow arias where the (usually) male soprano voice intertwines with orchestral sounds of woodwinds and (what sounds like) a harmonium to achieve a quite magical stillness. Most of the rest of it is a little formulaic, and the recitatives are the most banale of any opera I’ve yet come across.
Moments of intended comedy are provided by the interjections of the bawdy nurse. Moments of unintentional comedy abound. Having said all of this, and notwithstanding that there are those moments of real beauty in the music, it is the staging that redeems it from being a thoroughly dull evening. A fabulous giant disco ball showers the auditorium with swooshing lights; a clever use of a mirrored back to the stage brings the orchestra into view; solid Georgian-style dark brick walls with oversized segment-headed windows represent the palace; and there is a wonderful depiction of a heavenly dream, where giant balls bounce and float around like an operatic advert for Aero bars, until being popped by dancers with pins to signify the bursting of Niobe’s dream of a place amongst the stars.
This all made it reasonably engaging, but it was a long evening. It was well sung in the main, with voices projecting well into the auditorium. Of course, there’s a buzz of interest surrounding Jacek Laszczkowski as a male soprano incarnation of the King, Anfione. He started and finished with a clear tone, quite a bit more vivid and – to be blunt – louder than I had anticipated, but in the middle there were passages where he lost some focus to his voice. It was still impressive though, and made for interesting sonorities. His coloratura was a little odd, and occasional hootiness added an unintentional comedy. Very interesting. It was also interesting to compare it with the more solid countertenor voice of Iestyn Davies as Creonte. Reigning over it all was the Niobe of Vèronique Gens, whose clear, silvery tone was a pleasure, and I would like to hear her again in something more recognisable…
In order to fill the auditorium, seats had been flogged at bargain prices. This showed in the people around us. I was assailed pretty much constantly by the gentle slurping of sweets from the bunch of works’ sharabanc women behind me. Some peasant in front decided to take pictures during the performance – always at visually (and also vocally) significant moments – but alas, he was just slightly too far away to receive the swift crack to the back of the head with my new binoculars that should have been his lot. His friend, having come back from the interval, took 15 minutes to realise that he was bored again and so got up to leave mid-aria. I do hope that, if this is a ‘new audience’, then Niobe has put them off returning to an opera house until such time as they can learn some manners.
Thomas Hengelbrock led the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, and their sound world was some considerable distance from the regular house orchestra, once again adding to the interest occasioned by this ROH departure from the norm.
I do wonder ‘why Niobe?’ though. To paraphrase Thomas Beecham’s view on conductors, why a third rate imported baroque opera, when our big national companies have scarcely scratched the surface of our own home-grown second-rate ones? Not to mention that there must be a wealth of more engaging works to revive by the likes of Vivaldi, Hasse, Gluck, Scarlatti, Rameau, Charpentier… I also wonder if either the ROH or the Coliseum are the best venues. There was something quite alienating and distancing about the size of the house compared to the scale of the performance. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, rather than two ca. 2,500-seat opera houses, we need one at 2,500+ and one around the 1,200 mark. Baroque rarities would receive more worthy performances in the smaller house. Well, come the revolution…
(At which point that amateur opera photographer had better start dreading the knock at the door…)