fri 17/08/2018

The Tales of Hoffmann, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Tales of Hoffmann, English National Opera

The Tales of Hoffmann, English National Opera

A kitsch fantasy of a production brings the best out of Offenbach's opera

Living Doll: Georgia Jarman as Hoffmann's automaton-love OlympiaChris Christodoulou

For all its comic fantasy and lilting tunes, there’s nothing pastel-coloured about Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Deaths are frequent and bloody, humour is macabre, and emotions run high – being late to the pub is cause enough for violence and conspiracy theories. It’s a world of sliding screens, where a smile always threatens to become a leer, a kiss a murder. Who better (who else?) to inhabit this operatic fantasy-land than Richard Jones, a director who relishes the elision and collision of kitsch and the grotesque. His steel-capped whimsy here hits its mark with deadly and delicious accuracy.

There are few operatic comedies that don’t overstay their welcome; the quick thrust of good humour and opera’s wide-load pacing don’t always line up, and when they fail the result can be desperately tedious. The Tales of Hoffmann is always a risk in this respect. Lacking a definitive edition, at its longest the opera endures for a Wagnerian four to five hours, but with some brutal trimming can be reduced to a more manageable three. The compromise (based on the Michael Kaye/Jean-Christophe Keck edition but with changes including the Oeser ending to Giulietta’s Act III) currently being staged at English National Opera may err on the lengthy side, but thanks to Jones’s imaginative direction and Giles Cadle’s designs (not to mention one of the finest ensemble casts of the season) this psychedelic trip down the rabbit-hole never palls.

Barry Banks's Hoffmann is a fever of late-Romantic passion

The curtain rises on Hoffmann himself (Barry Banks), alone and struggling to write. His roar of frustration as he hurls yet another sheet of paper aside becomes the lowering orchestral opening, and as orchestral colour and pace gather we find ourselves abandoning the 19th-century world of the pub for an altogether more free-form sequence of worlds for the stories of Hoffmann’s three beloveds – Fifties kitsch for Olympia (“the little girl”), 19th-century Gothic for Antonia (“the artist”) and contemporary pop-art for Giulietta (“the reckless beauty”). Anchoring these adventures are Cadle’s designs, which each inhabit the same architectural space, reimagining the fixtures with dextrous variation.

This coherence of design, coupled with the authentic casting of a single singer not only for the three villains of the piece, but also for Hoffmann’s three loves (four if you count Stella), gives a welcome sense of through-direction and thematic coherence to a work that can so easily feel laboriously episodic.

Offenbach’s score might not stand up to close musicological scrutiny, but his gauzy melodies and bravura set pieces offer a grateful platform for singers. Leading the cast is a technically secure Barry Banks, whose Hoffmann is a fever of late-Romantic passion. From a poised “Kleinzach” he grew into the more sustained lyricism required by the Antonia and Giulietta episodes, offering not only his habitual beauty of tone, but rather more vocal weight that we’ve heard from him before. With Jones’s production undermining emotional authenticity at every turn, Banks struggled slightly with the arc of his hero – not a problem shared by young American soprano Georgia Jarman (pictured above), making her ENO debut as Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella.

Most at home in the coloratura rigidity of Olympia (her “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” was a triumph of vocal and choreographical precision), Jarman nevertheless made for an affecting Antonia (playing off against Clive Bayley’s Dr Miracle), and though the demands of Giulietta exposed the slightly pushed quality in her tone, this was a hugely convincing achievement for so young a singer.

Support came in abundance from Bayley’s trio of villains (pictured left - does anyone do sinister quite as well as Bayley?), whose benign Coppelius gave way to the real menace of Miracle and Dapertutto, as well as from Simon Butteriss as the cross-dressing Cochenille and pirouetting servant (and artist manqué) Frantz. Yet even among the visual clamour of Jones’s staging and a universally strong cast, it was Christine Rice who stood out. This British mezzo just gets better and better, and here as Muse/Nicklausse it was the rounded beauty of her upper register that really shone, set off by the unlikely juxtaposition with her grinning Just William schoolboy persona – grubby knees, conker and all.

The Tales of Hoffmann will never be the greatest opera, but in Jones’s hands its weaknesses are celebrated – transfigured into brittle wit and even, on occasion, beauty. Yet among the chatter of cultural references (Disney vies with Manga and Banksy, and I still can’t place the gorilla who stalks the action in Act III) something gets lost. Perhaps partly the fault of Antony Walker’s rather woolly musical direction, this production lacks the violence so key to Hoffmann’s nightmare-vision. The stakes here are never quite real, and in sacrificing menace for surreal humour Jones blunts the fangs that peep out from the opera’s broad smile.

Comments

Really enjoyed the in depth review of the above opera and has really made me look forward to seeing it later this month.

I must correct a mistake I made in my previous comment, the correct spelling is "Rheinnixen" not "Rheinnixon". No, America's 37th president had nothing to do with this opera.

Although I do not have any disagreement with the author's opinion of the performance, it should be noted that Ms. Coghlan is incorrect on two points here. First of all, there IS a definitive version of the score, the Kaye-Keck used here. The score is based on Offenbach's original manuscripts, every "i" has been dotted, every "t" has been crossed, Michael Kaye has spent a good portion of his life with these documents. The score we have now is Offenbach's vision of the opera at the time of his death, with only the fifth act (generally referred to as the "epilogue") not quite finished (thankfully, enough genuine Offenbach material has survived for a satisfying re- construction to be obtained, based both on Offenbach's sketches and early drafts of Barbier's libretto) If one performs the complete work without cuts it runs about three hours, no "brutal cutting" is necessary. Ms. Coghlan's confusion might derive from the occasional practice of adding earlier, rejected versions of certain arias which, if included along with Offenbach's final versions, would indeed make the opera run to about four hours. Thankfully, this is rarely done because it does not need to be done, nor would anyone even want it to be done (these alternative numbers are placed in the edition's appendix, and not in the body of the score). Or she may be thinking of the, now discredited, Oeser version. Not only did Oeser include all of this extra, rejected material (sung with new texts written by Oeser and re-positioned), but he also added bleeding chunks from Offenbach's earlier opera "Die Rheinnixon" to the Giulietta act (this does not include the two numbers from "Rheinnixon" which Offenbach borrowed himself). For all of these borrowed passages, Oeser provided new texts which he wrote himself, which makes his version of the Giulietta act run to about an hour in length. Offenbach's authentic Giulietta act runs to about thirty minutes. Furthermore, the ending used in Munich and the ENO by Jones in the Giulietta act does not come from the Oeser edition, but is a heavily edited version of the ending found in the original Barbier and Carré play from 1851; the tradition of substituting this ending for the one in the Choudens "traditional" version" began with Walter Felsenstein in the 1950's. The real damage that is done in the Jones staging revolves around this Giulietta ending. Not including the Giulietta finale which Offenbach wrote is sort of like not including the final scene of "King Lear". The ending decided upon by Barbier and Offenbach and set to music by the latter , makes a stronger effect than any other. It was not used in the past because no one knew about it - it was only just discovered a short time ago. By some miracle, the manuscript has survived and we can now perform this posthumous masterpiece exactly as Offenbach intended it to be performed at the time of his death. You can't get any more "authentic" than that.

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