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OPERA Recovered treasure


and Traviatas. How nice that sometimes the old thing can still spring a surprise. We think we know everything about the repertoire and back catalogue, then something arrives that nobody has ever heard of, lost for hundreds of years, and turns out to be marvellous. Agostino Steffani was a bishop, among other things, who lived mostly in Munich and Hanover, where he overlapped with the young Handel. Steffani had grown up in Venice, where the operas of Francesco Cavalli had made the newish art fantastically popular. Handel admired the old man and, as was his way, expressed it in musical borrowings to the end of his own life. The carnival spirit of Cavalli is palpable


even in such an awful tale as Niobe’s: this unhappy Theban queen lived to see her chil- dren massacred (the gods’ revenge for a minor slight) and, in one of those chillingly exact Greek metaphors, was turned to stone by her appalling grief – but continued to weep. As

pera can seem a fading grande dame, with her endless Figaros and Bohèmes

in Shakespeare, tragedy is sprinkled with slap- stick provided by those sturdy standbys, a comic nurse and frisky young couple. The librettist also chucks in an attempted over- throw of Thebes by Thessaly, whose prince, Creonte, magics himself into a facsimile of Mars to seduce Niobe. Her husband, Anfione, has already courted disaster with a Lear-like renunciation of kingship and by handing over the throne to Niobe and his protégé Clearte, who also happens to be in love with her. It’s an over-elaborate plot, even in Covent Garden’s reduced version: in Schwetzingen,

This piece is such a trove of musical riches … [it] rushes along in dancing rhythms and rollicking scoring

where this production originated, it lasted for five hours. And in truth, until the shocking denouement, director Lukas Hemleb substi- tutes the kitchen-sink approach for real engagement, and we are treated to every trick from the modern-Baroque grab-bag, featuring enormous disco balls and balloons, cross- dressing a-gogo, prosthetic breasts and codpieces, and a demonic PVC waterbed. But this piece is such a trove of musical riches, it hardly matters: a much more extrav-

agant idiom than Handel’s allows Steffani immense freedom of harmony, rhythm and form, and the action flows and fizzes and the characters interact in a way that later opera seria ironed into endless solo da capo scenes. The score rushes along in dancing rhythms and rollicking scoring, the melodic line often sounds more Romantic than Baroque, and an imaginative continuo thrums and twangles magically beneath. Then everything stops dead, Hemleb and his designers conjure hyp- notic visual miracles and the music circles trance-like as Anfione (sung by an extraor- dinary male soprano, Jacek Laszczkowski) dreams of the peace he longs for, or Niobe (the very cultured Véronique Gens) is sur- rounded by the music of the spheres – scenes Handel recalled nearly 60 years later in Semele. The finale reaches a level of appalling – and slightly surprising, given what’s gone before – intensity: the shattered Anfione keens over his dead children and a lost, wandering chro- matic bass line, his broken voice and life finally dying away in harrowed, staccato vocalisations. Niobe’s subsequent discovery of the bloodbath comes in an arioso that grows from nothing to a lament laden with a sort of desperate serenity, before its own dying fall as she turns to rock. Though it seems a harsh punishment for some hubristic remarks, it marks the start of an operatic strain that would culminate in Verdi’s nihilist dramas, painting a mad world without light, peace or help for pain. Robert Thicknesse



‘Catholic Social Teaching for the twenty-first century’

Entrants are invited to write a 1,500-word essay, of a style and standard suitable for publication in The Tablet, on the above topic. First prize: £500 plus a one-year subscription to The Tablet. Five runners-up will also receive a one-year subscription to The Tablet. The winning essay will be considered for publication in The Tablet, and a selection of the best essays will be published on our website.

The competition is open to all undergraduate and postgraduate university students. Essays must be in English and typed in double-line spacing (handwritten essays will not be considered). Each essay should be accompanied by an entry form (see below, or download from Each entrant may submit one essay. Entries should be submitted by post or as e-mail attachments to the address below, to arrive not later than Monday, 10 January 2011. Competition results will be published in The Tablet and on The Tablet website by the end of March 2011.

Name: Address:

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I confirm that this essay is my own original work and that it has not been previously published. Signed: ___________________________________ Date: ________________________

To be submitted to: Professor Tina Beattie ‘Essay Competition’

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2 October 2010 | THE TABLET | 33

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