Niobe, Regina di Tebe, Royal Opera House, London
Fidelio, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Tristan und Isolde, Royal Festival Hall, London

Lust, ambition, and a good dose of grief...they knew how to tickle an audience in 1688

The alpha mother is not a modern phenomenon.

Today you might see her at the school gates, boasting of Jack's hockey captaincy, Emily's flute recital, and the new baby's congenial sleep pattern, her 4x4 stuffed with bamboo nappies and Bond Papers. Lesser parents may roll their eyes but excessive pride in one's offspring rarely merits punishment of the sort meted out to Niobe, whose children (14 according to Ovid, 12 according to Homer) were slaughtered on Leto's command. After grieving for nine days, poor, vain, fecund Niobe was turned to stone, still weeping.

Infanticide and petrification are but two elements in Agostino Steffani's 1688 opera, Niobe, Regina di Tebe, brought to the Royal Opera House by Thomas Hengelbrock and the Balthasar -Neumann Ensemble in Lukas Hemleb's haute-couture production. Composer, diplomat and theologian, Steffani knew how to tickle the interest of his audience, spiking Niobe's maternal hubris with adultery, magic spells, political intrigue, romantic sub-plots and the stock sardonic nurse who is there to comment on human folly. The opera was premiered in Munich's carnival season, and it shows. So do the diverse musical influences in Steffani's life: the stile antico training of his boyhood, an early baptism in Venetian opera, and a pivotal journey to Lully's Paris. Lust, ambition and grief are expressed extravagantly yet succinctly. The arias are brilliant and abundant, propelled by athletic ground basses, interrupted by prowling kettle-drums, or sinuously laced with viola da gamba.

Raimund Bauer's black-walled set is an elegant frame for the dazzling effects required: celestial spheres, the entrance of Mars (actually Creonte), the earthquake that destroys the brattish fruits of Niobe's womb. Looking a million dollars in Andrea Schmidt-Futterer's crushed-silk gowns, Véronique Gens presents a complex, tart and sexually confident Niobe, her voice as cool as chilled white burgundy in the pitiful transformation scene. Her poise is not matched by Jacek Laszczkowski (Anfione), whose chromatic sobs sound like an elderly aunt coughing into a handkerchief. As his two rivals, Clearte and Creonte, Tim Mead and Iestyn Davies outperform him, the latter projecting with uncanny sweetness and ease.

In the pit, it's sublime: a thick, glossy seam of violone and tar-black regal organ, limpid recorders, agile strings, delicate and daring improvisations from double-harp, theorbo and guitar. The last performance is this afternoon, but for those with air miles to spare, Boston Early Music Festival has a new production next year, with Amanda Forsythe as Niobe and Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione.

So from hubristic mothers to perfect wives. First seen in Bordeaux and now taken up by Welsh National Opera, Giuseppe Frigeni's perverse staging of Fidelio is all sing and no spiel. The choreography is distracted and dreamlike, the dialogue largely excised, leaving silences of no discernible metre or purpose. At the second performance, the audience eventually filled some of these with applause, rather grudgingly. It takes a lot to muddy the radiance of Beethoven's score, but Frigeni manages it, despite the best efforts of conductor Lothar Koenigs, the orchestra, and a respectable supporting cast.

The wrong shape and size to pass as a boy, even by candlelight, Lisa Milne (Leonore/Fidelio) sings with customary musicality, while veteran tenor Dennis O'Neill stretches credibility as the Enlightenment fire-brand, Florestan.

Bill Viola, Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Tristan Project finally reached London last week in the Philharmonia Orchestra's Royal Festival Hall performance of Tristan und Isolde. Clothed in golds and Marian blues, Viola's meditative video triptych has been a constant since the project's inception in Los Angeles, suggesting, if not dictating, Salonen's pace. Impressive in the Opéra Bastille staging of 2005, Salonen's reading was astonishing in London: audacious in its measured embrace of silence in the Prelude, tumbling with urgency in Act II, wretched with misery in Act III.

Though billed as a semi-staging, this surround-sound Tristan had tremendous dramatic vitality, using the building to great effect, with Anne Sofie von Otter's Brangäne poised like an anguished angel in the highest box. Violeta Urmana's Isolde was smooth and elegant, Gary Lehman's Tristan a credible soldier, goofy with love, sick with shame. Joshua Ellicott's bright, edgy Sailor/Shepherd and Stephen Gadd's bitter Melot were outstanding in a strong supporting cast. The highest praise, however, must go to the orchestra, whose stamina, discipline and sustained glow were stunning.

'Niobe, Regina di Tebe': (020-7304 4000 - 3pm, today. 'Fidelio' (029 2063 6464) to 8 Oct, then touring

Next Week:

Anna Picard prepares to shiver at Opera North's Turn of the Screw

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices