By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — Agostino Steffani was undeniably one of the 17th century’s most influential opera composers. His international style synthesizing French, German, and Italian influences provided a model for Handel (who is documented as owning Steffani works in 1706), Keiser, Telemann, and other German composers. So it would seem surprising that the Steffani renaissance has only recently gained momentum.
With a new production of Amor vien dal destino, the Staatsoper Berlin on April 23 mounted what is reportedly the first performance of Steffani’s opera since its 1709 premiere in Düsseldorf.
The conductor René Jacobs, working together with the musicologist Colin Timms of the University of Birmingham, fashioned his own version of the score, cutting down the libretto to an approximately three-hour performance and fleshing out the basso continuo with a range of keyboard and string instruments.
The opera tells of the rivalry between Aeneas (King of Troy) and Turnus (King of the Rutulians) for Lavinia, daughter of King Latino. Lavinia is betrothed to Turnus but falls in love with Aeneas when he appears to her in a dream, prompting Turnus to wage war on Troy.
The story ends happily when Lavinia’s sister, Giatturna, ends a sword fight between the young kings. She is paired with Turnus, while Lavinia and Aeneas are granted union by Latino, ending the conflict between love, a principle governed by fate, and marriage, a human institution. Throughout Amor vien dal destino (“Love comes from Destiny”), Steffani’s mastery of vocal writing and sensitivity to dramatic expression are on display.
The composer integrates French-style dance interludes, lightly contrapuntal accompaniment, and rich melodic invention into a constantly dynamic but unified arc. Steffani also includes intricate dialogue between singers and individual instruments, such as the call-and-response between Venus (mother of Aeneas) and chalumeau (a predecessor to the clarinet) in her opening aria, or Lavinia’s Act One aria “A light breeze is blowing here…” in which she is accompanied only by lute.
The plot also has genuinely funny moments thanks to gender-bending in the cast. Turnus is sung by a soprano and Lavinia’s nurse, Nicea, by a tenor – a 17th-century tradition which Steffani observed for the only time.
Jacobs has gathered an excellent group of singers, capable of dispatching virtuosic ornamentation while also creating compelling characterizations.
The smoky timbre of mezzo-soprano Katarina Bradić lent itself beautifully to the tormented Lavinia’s arias. In a striking moment during the slow number “Take my life, Tyrant,” in which she vows to sacrifice her own life to save her father from Turnus, Bradić blended sensitively with the low strings.
As both Venus and Giatturna, Robin Johannsen brought a luminous soprano and an at times instrumental quality to her arias, such as in the Act Two number “Turn the captain back to shore,” in which she begs Turnus to turn back from the coast (Lavinia) to the shore (herself).
Jeremy Ovenden was a noble Aeneas, investing the role with both a clarion heldentenor tone and expert coloratura.
Markos Fink also gave a stand-out performance as King Latino, his flexible bass making a particularly strong impression in the first-act aria “You still don’t know,” in which he preaches to Giatturna the virtues of love.
The mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen was a magnetic presence in the trouser role of Turnus, fuming in defeat while dispatching her arias with pretty tone and firework ornamentation.
The comic heart of the show lay in the courtship of Nicea (tenor Mark Milhofer) by Aeneas’ envoy Corebo (baritone Gyula Orendt). In a clever move, director Ingo Kerkhof called for Corebo to sing down from the balcony before they frolicked on the catwalk.
The frolicking lasted an entire dance interlude, however, which was a shame given the lively dotted rhythms that would have lent themselves so well to real choreography.
Rounding out the cast was the poised countertenor Rupert Enticknap as both Jupiter and Turnus’ captain. Jacobs led the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin in a taut but spacious performance that was always finely tuned to the singers. If the chalumeaux were not always pristine in fast runs, the timbre of the single-reed instruments heightened the sense of authenticity.
Given the high musical standards of the evening and the historic nature of the production, it is a shame that Kerkhof’s staging did not receive more lavish treatment.
Set designer Dirk Becker appeared to be working on a tight budget, but even so showed little imagination. Against a painted facade of red curtains, a field of reeds eventually covered downstage, while a supernumerary representing Cupid (Konstantin Bühler) hung cardboard signs reading “love’s pains” and “love’s insanity.”
In the finale scene, blindfolded by the lovers, Cupid laps water like a dog while a paper boat floats before his nose (the ship of which Giatturna sang, which has now come to shore). All-white costumes by Stephan von Wedel evoked a 17th-century aesthetic but, like the set design, did not approach the opulence that such an important revival would seem to merit.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.