LONDON (Reuters) - A rarely performed baroque opera starring the first male soprano to sing at Covent Garden made "Niobe, Regina di Trebe" a considerable gamble for the Royal Opera House.
Early reviews of Thursday night's opening performance suggest it may have paid off.
"Steffani's Niobe ... is revealed as nothing short of a masterpiece," Barry Millington wrote in the London Evening Standard in a five-star review.
"The person responsible for bringing this enthralling show to Covent Garden deserves a medal."
Niobe, by Italian composer Agostino Steffani, was first performed in 1688, but was largely forgotten before being rediscovered by conductor Thomas Hengelbrock and director Lukas Hemleb who staged it at the Schwetzingen Festival in 2008.
The same production is being performed at Covent garden with Veronique Gens in the title role of the Queen of Thebes who angers the gods and is punished with the death of all her children.
The music is provided by specialist orchestra The Balthasar Neumann Ensemble.
Jacek Laszczkowski, one of only three or four male sopranos believed to be performing at the top level today, plays her husband Anfione.
"There are not so many male sopranos in the world," Laszczkowski said ahead of the first night, explaining why he was the first male soprano to sing at the Royal Opera House.
The 44-year-old Polish-born singer, who also performs as a tenor, believes the combination is unique.
"I am sure I am the only one in the world to be able to sing with the two voices," he said.
With age, he expected to perform more often as a tenor than a soprano. "At least I hope so. I don't think it would look good having an old man singing as a soprano."
Anfione would originally have been sung by a castrato, or a castrated man. The practice was common in the world of opera during the 1600s and 1700s, but tailed off toward the end of the 18th century as tastes and attitudes changed.
Entertainment website theartsdesk.com spoke of Laszczkowski's "astonishing range.
"(He) stole the show with his soulful and soft thoughts of heaven at the end of act one, a ravishing aria, delivered in the most exquisite sotto voce, and his barnstorming ascension into heaven in act two."
Laszczkowski said he could not explain why Steffani, widely acclaimed in his day and admired by the likes of Handel, had been overlooked for so long.
"I have no idea," he said. "When he died, the press in London said at the time that he was one of the world's greatest. Young people should also know that this opera has unbelievable rhythm, like something from rock or pop music.
"You don't have that in Verdi or Puccini."
Niobe will be performed on September 25, 27 and 29 and October 1 and 3.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato