French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione, the King of Thebes. (Boston Early Music Festival)
Classical New England is proud to present the world broadcast premiere of what you could call a “screwball tragedy,” Agostino Steffani’s 1688 Opera Niobe: Regina di Tebe (“Niobe, Queen of Thebes”), a work that lay forgotten until its revival in 2008, and subsequent North American premiere at the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival.
The opera opens with Anfione, the King of Thebes (sung brilliantly by the emerging French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky), who wants nothing more than to hang up his scepter and immerse himself in metaphysical contemplation of the harmony of the spheres. But Anfione’s celestial ambitions are dashed by a litany of earthly troubles: a foreign invasion, a kidnapping, adultery by enchantment, a dancing bear and some very angry gods.
In Steffani's opera, the King of Thebes is at turns an enlightened demi-god, an enraged, jealous husband and a bellicose warrior-king…and that's just one of many complex characters in this spectacular opera, bringing to life Ovid's timeless tale of love, pride and divided loyalties. We also get Queen-with-attitude, Niobe herself (sung by Boston favorite Amanda Forsythe), the lovesick courtier Clearte (Kevin Skelton), who pines for Niobe, the enemy prince of Thessaly (Matthew White), who also has designs on the haughty Queen; Jose Lemos is the wisecracking nurse Nerea, Colin Balzer and Yulia Van Doren as the young lovers Tibernio and Manto; Charles Robert Stephens as Manto’s father, the blind soothsayer Tiresia; and Jesse Blumberg in a crackling role as the evil magician Poliferno. Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette co-direct the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra in a production recorded by WGBH engineers at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston.