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Early music takes center stage

Opera 'Niobe: Regina di Tebe' is centerpiece of biennial festival

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By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / May 22, 2011

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With the days growing longer, the flowers (theoretically) blooming, and the year ending in an odd number, it can all mean only one thing: the Boston Early Music Festival is on its way.

Early music fans from across the country and abroad will soon be flooding the city for the expansive biennial festival, which runs June 12 to June -19. This year it features two operas, 15 concerts, and a trade show with exhibitors from Germany to Japan. There will also be BEMF fringe concerts with young musicians, lectures and demonstrations, master classes, and an entire concurrent Young Performers Festival sponsored by Early Music America, devoted to showcasing ensembles based at universities and conservatories. If past years are a reliable judge, it should add up to a windfall for early music fans.

In keeping with tradition, a fully staged opera will serve as the festival’s centerpiece, to be presented in a period production. This year it will be the North American premiere of Agostino Steffani’s “Niobe: Regina di Tebe,’’ whose libretto was loosely inspired by Ovid’s tale of the Queen of Thebes and her husband, Anfione, on a collision course with the gods. It was first performed at the 1688 Carnival in Munich.

Over the years BEMF has labored to unearth completely forgotten 17th- and 18th-century operas, oftentimes requiring its artistic team and their collaborators to assemble a new performance edition from historical sources in various states of disarray. In this case, Steffani (1654-1728) was an Italian composer prominent in northern Germany during the transitional decades between the early operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli, and the opera seria of Handel. But while his vocal chamber duets (also to be performed at BEMF) are still occasionally spotted, Steffani’s operas have essentially disappeared from view.

One challenge then built into the BEMF enterprise, according to artistic co-director Paul O’Dette, is persuading listeners not to hold an opera’s obscurity against it. “People have this notion that the most beloved works of the most beloved composers are the results of musicologists cherry-picking their way through music history,’’ he said. “And yet in terms of late-17th- and early-18th-century opera, most of the composers and nearly all of their works are just completely unexplored. In the case of Steffani, you have a composer who was considered the giant of the time — the person Handel copied and stole from. And yet he’s completely unknown today.’’

It was some two decades ago that O’Dette himself first came across a book of excerpts of Steffani’s operas from 1912 and was astonished. “The ‘Niobe’ excerpts were just so extraordinary, I’d never seen anything like them — the range of the vocal parts, the range of musical gestures, the harmonic language, the instrumentation throughout the opera,’’ he said. “Because this opera is about the power of music, I think Steffani set out to write music that was extraordinary in every way possible.’’

BEMF’s artistic co-director Stephen Stubbs also raves: “The quality of soaring Italianate lyricism is as strong as anything in Handel, plus this dance component coming from the French side is a very enlivening aspect. And I don’t think there’s any score in all of Baroque music that’s more rich in the variety of orchestration.’’

The piece was performed last fall at Covent Garden in London to mostly positive reviews, and soprano Amanda Forsythe, an admired fixture of the Boston opera scene, sang the role of the maiden Manto in that production. She’ll return next month in the title role, singing alongside the accomplished French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione.

As in recent years, the period staging will be overseen by BEMF’s resident stage director Gilbert Blin, who confessed that “Niobe’’ was news to him as well. “It was, I admit, a discovery,’’ said Blin, speaking by phone from Amsterdam. “It was like opening a door where you think behind it is just a small room but you arrive instead in a huge space full of richness and strange, unknown artifacts.’’ Blin is now enthralled: “It’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve had the opportunity to direct.’’

As in past years, sets (by Blin), costumes (by Anna Watkins), and choreography (by Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante) will be based on meticulous historical sleuthing into the look and style of the original Munich production. “I don’t say necessarily that the opera should be created as it was,’’ Blin explained, “but we have to at least try to understand what it meant at the time, and try to see its message as completely relevant today.’’

This year’s festival will also feature a reprise of BEMF’s 2009 production of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea,’’ to be performed in Jordan Hall on June 18. Other performers will include Jordi Savall in a program called “The Celtic Viol,’’ the Tallis Scholars singing works by Victoria, the King’s Singers with Renaissance madrigals, and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout playing Mozart Piano Quartets with members of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, among many others. The festival’s popular late-night concerts, which often run past midnight, will also be returning.

This year’s festival, titled “Metamorphosis: Change and Transformation,’’ arrives at a time that the organization’s fortunes appear to be on an upswing, perhaps tracking the rise of the early music movement as a whole, which continues to grow larger, more diversified, and more mainstream. In recent years, BEMF has launched a series of recordings, it has begun exporting its programs to New York’s Morgan Library, and it recently sent its chamber opera productions on tour in the United States and Canada. Closer to home, subscription sales for the current season of local programs were the highest in the organization’s history, according to executive director Kathy Fay.

“I think it’s an exciting time for early music — I really do,’’ said Fay. “I chuckle when I call an 800 number and hear it on the hold music. It’s all around us.’’

Or it will be soon.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL Concerts, lectures, and workshops with artists from around the world, June 12-19. “Niobe: Regina di Tebe,’’ June 12-19, Cutler Majestic Theatre, Emerson College; June 24-25, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington. Ticket information: 617-661-1812, www.bemf.org

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