Royal Opera House: Yummy mummy gets into trouble while honest bird finds happiness (Niobe, Regina di Tebe)

It takes a lot to get me to enjoy a baroque opera. It helped that my good friend Christine Busch, a violinist from Stuttgart, Germany, got me a ticket for the dress rehearsal of Niobe, Regina di Tebe at the Royal Opera House in London. You can’t enjoy it if you don’t get to go.

However, tickets for the public performances will be easier to get hold of: not many people get terribly excited about the prospect of watching ancient Greek folk over three solid hours getting into trouble while singing lots of coloratura. And that’s not counting the almost half-hour break after the first of the three acts. I had never managed to listen to a baroque opera from start to finish before.

But this is different. Thanks to ingenious, witty, modern set design and direction, and thanks very much to the surtitles that allow you to follow the story every step of the way, this opera by Italian diplomat and composer Agostino Steffani becomes an almost suspenseful session.

French soprano Véronique Gens (who by the way is quite a celebrity in baroque music circles) seems the perfect singer for the role of posh yummy mummy Niobe who gets to reign over Thebe when hubby Anfione feels like retiring. American Amanda Forsythe brings a Reese Witherspoon charme (Vanity Fair) to the role of the young honest bird Manto, daughter to rightfully grumpy blind seer Tiresia. Quite early on, she gets rescued (disappointingly off-stage) from a wild animal by cool regal muscle man Tiberino, portrayed with the requisite oomph and passion by German tenor Lothar Odinius.

The set and lighting designs are by German designer Raimund Bauer. In themselves they create a daunting and increasingly dark atmosphere that in its simple grandeur of big, clear lines becomes an opera house like the Royal Opera House. There is only one moment, where a huge disco ball time-warped (and enlarged) from the Seventies descends from above where I thought maybe that was an error in judgement. But the smart, witty, and sometimes simply gorgeous set design would be nothing without the lively, believable and often pleasantly humorous direction by German Lukas Hemleb.

The production would not exist, were it not for multi-talented German conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, who founded the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, an orchestra that specialises on historical performances with original instruments. However, when I throw a quick glance at what the man’s been up to in his life already, it’s probably more his thirst for innovation that made him bring such state-of-the-art people to this production.

Buy a ticket. It is all stark and very German, so don’t say you have not been warned. I claim no expertise on baroque opera at all, so maybe they all are done in sexy, funny, cool, smart and fascinating ways nowadays. More likely though this is one of the best you can get.

Hélène Grimaud plays Ravel at 2010 BBC PROMS

There are cultural experiences that you will remember all your life. May I suggest as a candidate sitting in the Royal Albert Hall with closed eyes, waiting after the first movement of Ravel’s piano concerto in G major for French pianist Hélène Grimaud to fill the huge auditorium that seats up to 5,000 people with an unbelievably gentle carpet of sound (is that even an English phrase or just a clumsy translation from German?).

Hélène Grimaud - Ravel recording on Amazon

I heard her do exactly this at the PROMS a few years ago, and it is a captivating and very memorable experience indeed. You can buy a studio recording of that concert with her and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra by clicking on the image above, or you can listen to a few minutes of a decent enough recording by Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich after clicking on the following image. (Click on the play-button next to no.5 after scrolling down to get to the “MP3-songs”.)

Martha Argerich plays Ravel

Hélène Grimaud returns to the BBC PROMS with Ravel’s piano concerto in G major on Tuesday, 24th August 2010.