The life of Jacques Offenbach is nearly as complicated
and tragic as his last, and greatest, work, ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’.
Jacques was originally Jacob, born in Cologne the son of a jobbing
Jewish fiddler cum music teacher. The son revealed such early
talent that the father made many sacrifices to send his son to
study in Paris. There he, in turn, scraped a living as a ‘session’,
in today’s idiom, cellist. At the time of the ‘World Exhibition’
in Paris in 1855, frustrated by inability to get his compositions
performed, he had opened the minuscule ‘Bouffes Parisiens’ theatre.
Visitors to ‘The Exhibition’ flocked to hear his tuneful operettas.
As one successful work followed another he was dubbed by Rossini
‘The Mozart of the Champs Elysées’. This frivolous time
in France finished abruptly with the Franco-Prussian war, the
siege of Paris, the fall of the Emperor Napoleon and the collapse
of the ‘Second Empire’. Perhaps Offenbach with his Germanic guttural
French felt his day in France was over. He went to America still
harbouring a wish to write an opera; one that would be accepted
and performed at Paris’s Opéra Comique.
On his return to Paris, another composer generously
ceded Offenbach the libretto of Hoffmann. He set to work on the
plot which tells the story of Hoffmann’s loves and of his nemesis,
Dr Lindorf, who assumes the disguises of Coppelius, Dapertutto
and Dr Miracle. Lindorf thwarts his pursuit of the ladies of the
story. Hoffmann is rescued from the machinations, and worst intentions,
of Lindorf by his companion Nicklaus. As financial necessity involved
Offenbach producing other work during the period of composition,
progress on Hoffmann was slow and aggravated by the composer’s
declining health. At his death he had only orchestrated the Prologue
and Act I. The remainder of the work was in piano score and was
orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud (he who set the dialogue of Carmen
as sung recitative). The work was presented at the Opéra
Comique on February 10th 1881. It ran for over one
hundred performances in that first season. However, the convoluted
story does not end there. Others added spoken dialogue, altered
the sequence of the acts, and their location, as well as setting
sung recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue. This recording
reverts to the original sequence of acts. At the time of this
recording, scholarship had not led to the Oeser performing edition,
or the 350 or so pages that emerged after that and which are included
in Jeffrey Tate’s recording on three Philips CDs. It is very abbreviated
compared even with the Decca issue under Bonynge which, like this,
is on two CDs.
None of the foregoing is found in the accompanying
booklet, which comprises artist profiles, in German and English,
and a track listing; distinctly sparse! The artist profiles are
informative although that of the conductor is over-hyped. The
track numbering is perverse with CD1 tracked 1 to 20 with the
aria details in German only. CD2 is detailed as 21 to 44! On playing,
the tracks appear on the CD player’s display as 1 to 24; just
as one might expect.
The conducting is rather heavily Teutonic at
the outset, but the beat becomes lighter, the rhythms better sprung
and more idiomatic as the work progresses. I found the introduction
to Act III (CD2 tr.10 but shown as 30) very slow and pedantic.
This speed tests the Antonia of Elfride Trotschel (1913-1958)
as well as highlighting some concerns about pitch and an edginess
in what is otherwise a clear, forward and airy recording. It is
distinctly better than many from that period.
As to whether Offenbach intended Hoffmann’s loves
to be sung by one singer is open to debate. On record, Joan Sutherland
(Decca under Bonynge) brought it off, whilst Gruberova (EMI under
Cambreling) didn’t. The four roles have very different vocal demands,
just like Lindorf and his manifestations. These are here all sung
by Alexander Welitsch (1906-1991), with varying success, although
his diction is good throughout. As Dr Lindorf he is rather too
Germanic, whilst Coppelius lies too high for his comfort with
the voice losing focus at the conclusion of ‘Scintille diamant’.
By contrast the head voice he uses in CD2 tr.7 (shown as 27) is
nearly a croon. His best showing is as Dr Miracle in the Antonia
scene where the part lies well for his voice. Welitsch sounds
awesomely and threatingly saturnine in ‘Tu ne chantera plus’ (CD2
Trs.16-18) with Hoffmann and Crespel, the latter having a particularly
appealing and sonorous bass voice.
Of Hoffmann’s loves, Wilma Lipp (b.1925) is a
convincing Olympia. Her ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmelle’ (CD1 tr.14)
is well sung with a good trill and well coloured coloratura if
without the absolute security of Sutherland in the more stratospheric
vocal heights. In the Venetian scene Martha Modl (1912-2001),
already a Carmen and to be a Brunnhilde, is a big-voiced Giulietta
trying too hard to lighten her innately refulgent tone. The part
does not sit well on her voice although one senses the power within
that comes into play as she battles with Dapertutto (CD2 tr.7).
I have touched on the Antonia of Trotschel: her duet with Hoffmann
‘C’est un chanson d’amour’ (CD2 tr.14) shows her tonal strengths
better than the introductory aria. She sings convincingly although
her diction could be better.
The part of Hoffmann himself is taken by the
German lyric tenor Rudolf Schock (1915-1986). After having his
career interrupted to serve on the Russian Front in World War
2 and surviving to sing Tamino at the Vienna State Opera in the
1943/44 season he was called up again for Hitler’s last throw,
the Ardennes offensive of December 1944. After the conclusion
of hostilities he was engaged at the Staatsoper Berlin. In 1948
became the first German singer engaged by London’s Royal Opera
House in the post-war period. There he proved an accomplished
Rodolfo. He went on to sing at Salzburg as Idomeneo and extended
his fach to include Manrico (Il Trovatore) and Walther (Der Meistersinger).
He is well known for his operetta recordings made for EMI Electrola
in the late-1940s where his flexible well supported mellifluous
tenor is heard to good effect. His potential beyond that lighter
repertoire was quickly recognised and he sang his first Hoffmann
in 1947. His strengths are clearly apparent as he sing the ‘Kleinsach’
story in the Prologue (CD1 tr.4). If he hasn’t quite the heft
of Domingo (Decca), the subtleness of his voice, sheer élan
and feel for a phrase as well as characterisation are virtues
preferable to Gedda (EMI) or Schicoff (Philips). His ‘Amis l’amour’
of the Venice scene (CD2 tr.2) shows some slight strain above
the stave and he doesn’t have the beauty of tone of Wunderlich.
Nonetheless his portrayal is convincing and enjoyable and justifies
interest in this issue.
The matter of language will influence some purchasers.
For me it was not too much of a problem and it certainly did not
detract from my enjoyment of Offenbach’s inspiring music. Any
doubts are compensated by hearing well known singers in repertoire
other than that which they sang outside their country or on studio
Robert J Farr