An Operatic Missing Link: Steffani's 'Niobe'

WOO-1312-niobe-overview-300When the subject is Baroque opera, two great composers immediately come to mind -- representing two, very different times in an era of rapid change.

One is Claudio Monteverdi. His Orfeo is among the earliest of all operas, and it's certainly the first that's still a repertory piece today. It was premiered in 1607, which also puts it about as early as it gets in the Baroque era, which is generally described as lasting from 1600 to 1750.

The other composer whose name is readily tied to Baroque opera is George Frideric Handel, whose works made him an operatic superstar during the first few decades of the 18th century.

It's easy enough to argue that Monteverdi and Handel are the two most popular and most important composers of Baroque opera, and both wrote Italian operas. But they worked a century or so apart, and their music is very different. So surely, if their contrasting styles are both considered Baroque, there must be other composers whose operas bridge the gap.

And there are -- at least chronologically speaking. In France, Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote successful "middle-Baroque" operas in the late 1600s. So did Henry Purcell in England. But somehow, the French and English styles of Baroque opera haven't travelled all that well, and don't seem as closely tied to operas before and after.

Italy, though, was a different story. As you might expect, there was plenty of Italian opera between Monteverdi and Handel. But while much of it was extremely popular in its time, it hasn't fared so well between now and then, and we just don't hear much of it these days.

Agostino Steffani was one of that period's most successful opera composers. He was born near Venice, in 1643, and would have known Monteverdi's music early on. Later, Steffani's work was a clear influence on Handel.

Steffani left Italy in his youth, and spent nearly all his career in Germany -- which might explain why he never got much attention as an Italian opera composer. It probably didn't help that during his lifetime, Steffani may have been better known as an influential diplomat and cleric than as a composer. And later on, some opera lovers encountering Steffani's work could well have been distracted by sensational suggestions that he was also a castrato.

But, finally, Steffani's reputation as a composer may be growing. Not long ago, opera star Cecilia Bartoli released a striking album of his arias, accompanied by a glossy booklet outlining the various intrigues of his life as a diplomat. And in the theater, the prestigious Boston Early Music Festival mounted the show featured here, an acclaimed production of Steffani's 1688 opera Niobe, Queen of Thebes.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents that Boston production of Steffani's Niobe, a colorful jumble of devious politics, lively comedy and passionate romance, all tempered by the wrath of the gods. It's presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, in a production led by the Festival's co-directors, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs.