Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) set words to music as only a master linguist and singer could. His beautiful chamber duets were influential on Handel’s essays in that genre, while Steffani’s sacred music and French-influenced operas seem to grow out of the duet as a fundamental unit of composition. Steffani spent two decades working in Munich and Niobe, Regina di Tebe, composed in 1687, was his final opera for that city.
Based on an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Luigi Orlandi’s libretto tells the story of Queen Niobe’s downfall after being handed the regency by her husband Anfione, King of Thebes. Assailed by love and hate in equal measure – Tiberino, son of the King of Alba, wants Thebes for himself; the vengeful magician Poliferno assists lovestruck Creonte in his own ambitions for queen and kingdom – Niobe ultimately succumbs to pride and is duly punished by the gods.
The music is glorious, Steffani’s adroit handling of recitative and aria matched by his generous orchestrations utilising strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Captured live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, this performance conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock and featuring Véronique Gens as Niobe, Jacek Laszczkowski as Anfione, Alastair Miles as Poliferno and Iestyn Davies as Creonte is correspondingly fluent, dramatic and colourful.