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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1877-80)
Opera in four acts, libretto by Barbier and Carré, after E.T.A.Hoffmann
Hoffmann – Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Olympia – Gianna d’Angelo (soprano)
Giulietta – Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Antonia – Victoria de los Angeles (soprano)
Coppelius and Miracle – George London (bass)
Dapertutto – Ernest Blanc (baritone)
René Duclos Choir
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/André Cluytens
Recorded at the Salle Wagram, Paris, Sept. 1964, Nov. 1965. ADD
Great Recordings of the Century Series
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 67979 2 [2 CDs 76’29+75’47]


Between 1855 and the collapse of the Second Empire, Jacques Offenbach helped turn Paris into the ‘cabaret of the world’, beginning with a hilarious one-acter about a double bass player and a cannibal queen and moving on through more than seventy operettas. These include Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène and what he hoped might be remembered as his ‘serious’ masterpiece, The Tales of Hoffmann. This is largely based on the play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, staged in Paris in 1851, which uses the character of E.T.A Hoffmann (maverick writer, fantasist and musician) as narrator and stitches together three of his stories into a fantastical whole. It was left incomplete at the composer’s death, and it was left to Ernest Guiraud to finish some of Act 3 and much of the orchestration. It became Offenbach’s greatest success.

There are at least eleven complete recordings in the present catalogue, and the top of the list tends to be (at least to specialists) Cluytens’ earlier (1948) EMI version, featuring a truly authentic French cast who capture the opera’s native style as no other. But as Richard Osborne’s note rightly tells us, it was Cluytens himself who felt the need to update that mono recording, and Walter Legge was drafted in to start negotiations for the ‘dream team’. It seems Cluytens had originally insisted on Maria Callas as one of the three heroines, though she fell out with Legge over the casting of Giulini’s Verdi Requiem, and then Legge himself parted company with EMI, only staying involved with the Offenbach project because of his wife, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Though Legge later referred to this recording as "a poor dilution of my original concept", the background vicissitudes are never apparent to the listener.

It may seem to some that the sheer élan and fizz of the previous version is missing in places here, but there is no doubt, to my ears, that Cluytens’ conducting is one of the true strengths of this present set. There is a tightness and spontaneity that only come from great experience and familiarity with the score. He gets excellent results from his orchestra, and the principals are uniformly stylish and in good voice. Expectations had been sky high for this recording, though on release some critics were mixed in their views. Gedda was more or less universally praised, and it’s easy to see why. As in Gounod’s Faust (another GROC, also conducted by Cluytens) he was born for this role. Diction and phrasing are superb, and the tone is full and fruity, with glorious top end; just sample ‘O Dieu de quelle ivresse’ (Act 3) to see what I mean. It’s doubtful a more stylish tenor could have been found for this role in 1965. Victoria de los Angeles acquits herself well, despite having had health problems following the birth of her first child. Gianna d’Angelo is also immensely accomplished, not least in her big Act 2 coloratura aria ‘Les-ois-eaux-dans-la-char-mille’. Schwarzkopf came in for criticism as ‘too German’, ironic in this most Germanic of Offenbach’s works. To my ears the voice and subtlety with the text are exemplary. George London is slightly rough of tone, but Ernest Blanc is at least as enjoyable and effective as he was on the Faust set. Supporting roles and chorus work are all excellent.

The recording shows its age slightly in places. There is a hint of distortion on top notes and some climactic passages, but overall balance and detail is admirable. Full text and translation, as usual, and typically entertaining background notes. On two well-filled, medium price discs, this has to be a strong contender for your library, combining as it does the stylish performing traditions of a previous generation with pretty good stereo sound. Recommended.

Tony Haywood

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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