Agostino Steffani's Vocal Duets Rediscovered

Italian-born Composer Worked in Germany

By: - Oct 12, 2017

Steffani: Duets of Love and Passion
Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors
Instrumentalists: Paul O’Dette, theorbo; Stephen Stubbs, Baroque guitar; Maxine Eilander, Baroque harp; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord; Erin Headley, viola da gamba
Vocalists: Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Emöke Baráth, soprano; Colin Balzer, tenor; Christian Immler, baritone
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston
October 6, 2017

The Boston Early Music Festival is on something of an Agostino Steffani kick. It first staged Steffani’s opera “Niobe: Regina di Tebe” as the centerpiece of its 1991 season, adding at the time an evening of duets by Steffani and Handel to show Steffani’s influence on the younger German. We still have in our ears the enchanting program of Steffani duets the group’s chamber ensemble performed here this past weekend as part of a tour that brought the program to six North American cities – Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, Seattle, New York City and Kansas City – after having been first performed in January in Bremen, Germany, where it was recorded. The CD, on the cpo label, also titled “Duets of Love and Passion,” was released to coincide with the tour. And the festival has announced that its next fully staged opera will be Steffani’s “Orlando generoso,” one of the many operas based on Ariosto’s epic poem “Orlando furioso,” which will be presented during its 2019 festival.

1. So the festival’s focus raises three questions: Who is this Agostino Steffani, who is largely unknown even to early music fans? If he is important, why was he so thoroughly forgotten? And why is the BEMF devoting so much of its time and resources to him?

Agostino Steffani was born in Italy, in the Veneto, in 1653, but after he was scouted singing in the Venetian opera, he was brought as a pre-teen to Munich to sing at its court. For the rest of his long life, he lived in Germany, in Munich, Düsseldorf, and particularly Hanover, traveling widely, including visits back home to Italy, an extended stay in Paris, where he immersed himself in French operatic style, and a diplomatic posting in Brussels. At least that’s what’s known: In addition to being a composer, Steffani was also a priest and a diplomat in the Hanover court, charged by the Church with the conversion of Germany to Catholicism and by the Hanoverian court with convincing the Empire to elevate Hanover from Duchy to Electorate. (The young heir to the throne, Georg, however, complicated those plans, which were ultimately successful, crossing the channel to become the English King George I.) So, who knows if the official record shows all of the destinations Steffani might have traveled in service of Church and Prince. Was he a spy? Cecilia Bartoli in her 2012 CD “Mission” seems to think so. (Aren’t all diplomats spies?) Just to show how complicated European politics was at the time, Steffani, who was an agent of the Pope, was working for a Lutheran Prince, who generously exempted him from writing sacred music for the court.

BTW, in her album devoted to Steffani, Bartoli also suggests that he was a castrato, a fate many talented boy sopranos faced in the fanatical pursuit of vocal perfection in the 17th century opera world. There is circumstantial evidence that supports that conclusion.

You might be thinking that Steffani’s life would make a good subject of an opera or at least a novel. In fact, the crime fiction writer and opera fanatic, Donna Leon, famous for her Commissioner Brunetti series, has done just that – her novel “The Jewels of Paradise,” which appeared in 2012, has added to the international Steffani revival which the BEMF helped launch.

Celebrated during his time for his operas and vocal duets, of which he was the acknowledged master, the merit of which the BEMF demonstrated Friday night, Steffani was forgotten by music history after Handel’s arrival on the Italian scene.

A lot of composers fall out of fashion but are not thoroughly forgotten. Why was Steffani? Maybe it was because he devoted the last 30 years of his life to his diplomatic pursuits at the very time Handel was slaying all rivals in Rome and London. Stubbs suggests in his program note for the program of duets that it might be because he wrote almost exclusively for the voice, and that vocal works from the period are only slowly coming into the repertoire. He wrote no Brandenburg concertos, no Four Seasons, no Water Music.

The answer, according to both Stephen Stubbs and Colin Timms, a British Steffani expert, also seems to involve national cultural politics. Both agree that it was a result of two different nationalisms. Italian-born and the composer of operas and duets in Italian, Steffani was forgotten in his homeland because his career unfolded in Germany, leaving little artistic trace south of the Alps. The Germans, on the other hand, dismissed his considerable career in their lands because he was not German.

In his program note, Stubbs is more pointed: “German musical history (particularly in the twentieth century) has been much occupied with establishing the ‘purity’ of German inspiration, free of foreign influence.” We can all understand and support the desire for a people to create its own culture, but from the call in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” for a pure and German art, there is something troubling about the implications of the German quest for artistic purity, at least in the way it played out. First they rejected Steffani and I did not object, by the time they rejected Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg – and killed Viktor Ullmann - it was too late.   

Stubbs writes that he and Paul O’Dette basically stumbled upon Steffani while they were doing research into the Hamburg opera, at its time the largest and most productive house in Europe, and Handel, whose first surviving opera “Almira,” which the BEMF staged in 2013 and will be reprising this Thanksgiving weekend as a concert opera in anticipation of its recording, was first presented in Hamburg. Hamburg supported opera that synthesized Italian and French elements with nods toward German native style. Steffani, who had studied Lully during his sojourn in Paris and adopted elements of French style in his own opera, including extended overtures and dance passages and rejection of the strict aria da capo style, was the linchpin in their researches, so in 2011 they decided to mount “Niobe,” one of Steffani’s most accomplished works.

And the rest as they say is history.

For those who care only about whether the soprano hit her high notes or whether the horns made an ugly squawk – there were no horns in the program – I apologize for the lengthy introduction. But although I wouldn’t write about Baroque secular vocal works unless I found them musically ravishing and dramatically compelling, I also find the story of its ongoing rediscovery fascinating. First there was Monteverdi and Handel, then Rameau, Lully, Purcell, and, as research continued, Cavalli, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Charpentier, down to Steffani and the leading composers of the many German ducal theaters. Who will be next? Stay tuned. I’m sure the BEMF will be among the first to bring them to our attention.

Steffani wrote some 20-odd operas but he is most highly regarded for his duets, of which he was a master. Something of a cross between a madrigal or song for a solo singer and a cantata for larger forces, the vocal duet, which was composed for private entertainments, did not enjoy the same success and is thus rarely performed today in either concert hall or in recording. When I first read that the BEMF was doing a program of duets by Steffani, I assumed incorrectly that they were going to be excerpts from his operas.  

The duets are all about love, lost, found and abandoned, and the pains, often delicious, that accompany the emotion - the same basically as the madrigal, and although it gets complicated, often with political content, opera. In the duet “Quanto care al cor,” there is a line that makes the overriding theme in all the duets clear: “A heart that has not suffered/Cannot enjoy true happiness.” In the duets there is a back and forth, although the singers seldom assume characters. In two of the duets performed, both singers are female, although we are not to assume they sing about lesbian love. There is no duet for the two men – hmm.

The vocal cast - sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Emöke Baráth,  tenor Colin Balzer and baritone Christian Immler – could not be bettered. In general, they sang as if they were in a conversation, which is what a duet essentially is, their vocal lines often coming together to intertwine only to separate again into two distinct voices. Because Boston was the fifth stop on the long weeklong tour, the local audience was the beneficiary of the previous performances, which served as additional rehearsals. The vocalists sang together with an easy familiarity that allowed them the freedom to be fully expressive. One only wished that Steffani had written a vocal quartet so all four could sing together.

The opening duet, “Tengo per infallibile” (I take it as certain), set the tone of the evening. A monologue of a man who is certain that he will die, the fire of his love soon to inflame him, it featured Forsythe, who caused murmurs of surprise and delight as she walked on stage in a dramatic green high-low gown, high in the front, low in the back - Boston singers are not known for their stylish attire – and the German Immler, who was also dramatically garbed in a long black coat that set off his long face and van dyke beard like an El Greco saint. They proved to be a wonderful vocal pairing, flirtatious yet passionate – inflamed - Immler boasting of crisp enunciation and the best trilled r’s in the business, his baritone light and flexible, not lost in the depths of vocal molasses like many baritones.

The only problem with the format, evident from the start, is that the texts are written for one voice but, without a division into separate roles, the text renders two singing voices redundant. Who is burning with passion? The bass? Or the soprano? Both? As a composer for opera, one would think that Steffani would be concerned with creating mini-dramas in his duets between the two singers, but he seems not to have been.

The second duet, “Quanto care al cor” (How dear to my heart), featured the two sopranos in a display of intoxicating vocalism. Two voices in the same vocal range but with different colorings, the two different personalities combined in a wonderful balance. Baráth, a Hungarian with extensive early music credits in Europe, was making her debut with the festival. She possessed a vivid instrument with a heavier, darker soprano and embodied unforced high notes that brilliantly complemented Forsythe’s lighter, higher voice. In this duet, and in the concert in general, Forsythe, who lives in Jamaica Plain, has never sounded better. She sang with bell-like clarity and wit in both “Quanto cor...” and “Su, ferisci, alato arciero” (Come on, shoot, winged archer), her second duet with Baráth. 

In such works, the fact that neither singer is assigned a role and that, although the texts are central to the expression, it is clear that the short works exist primarily for vocal display. Bel canto is applied to Italian vocal music of the late 18th/early 19th century, to composers like Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, but when it comes to beautiful singing, you can’t beat the composers of the century before.

One of the most dramatic duets is “Gelosia,” which the festival posted on Youtube. ( The singer apostrophizes jealousy, begging it to fly away, to disappear, yet concluding that “there is no greater joy than its poison.” Chacun à son goüt! The duet brought the fire out of Forsythe, and her voice blended meltingly together with that of tenor Colin Balzer.

For those who missed the concert but would like to experience the delights of Steffani at his best, the CD is available. It differs from the concert in two significant ways, however. The order of the songs is different, and one long duet on the CD was not sung on the stage. However, the concert included a number of short instrumental pieces between the duets to serve as a bit of a palate cleanser that were not on the CD. Since Steffani did not write such works, the instrumentals were by other more-or-less contemporaneous composers, including Handel. With tripping ease, harpsichordist Michael Sponseller played Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith,” an ingratiating melody that was the first piece of music by Handel I, and many others of my generation, ever heard – it was played in elementary school, when schools still had music classes. And in a toccata arpeggio for theorbo (a long necked guitar) by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, O’Dette proved his virtuosity.

In sum, a delightful evening of seldom heard music. You do have to ask the question though of Steffani’s standing among the composers of his time. From the evidence of his compositions, now being brought to life, he was a major voice, but he also seemed to lack the genius of composers like Monteverdi, Rameau and, of course, Handel. So far, among the works of his brought back by the BEMF and Bartoli, I would say that “Niobe” is his greatest achievement, and that has more longueurs than “hits.” However, we don’t know Steffani with anything like finality. I look forward to the festival’s production of “Orlando generoso” with great anticipation. Maybe it will be the work that firmly cements Steffani’s reputation.