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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819 - 1880)
Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1881)
Hoffmann - Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Olympia - Gianna d'Angelo (soprano)
Giulietta - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Antonia - Victoria de Los Angeles (soprano)
Nicklausse - Jean-Christophe Benoit (baritone)
Lindorf - Nicola Ghiuselev (bass)
Coppelius - George London (bass)
Dr. Miracle - George London (bass)
Dapertutto - Ernest Blanc (baritone)
Spalanzani - Michel Sénéchal (tenor)
Crespel - Robert Geay (bass)
Nathanael - André Mallabrera (tenor)
Hermann - Jacques Pruvost (baritone)
Schlemil - Jean-Pierre Laffage (baritone)
Luther - Jean-Pierre Laffage (baritone)
Andres - Jacques Loreau (tenor)
Cochenille - Jacques Loreau (tenor)
Frantz - Jacques Loreau (tenor)
Pittichinaccio - Jacques Loreau (tenor)
Antonia's Mother - Christine Gayraud (mezzo-soprano)
Stella - Renée Fauré (spoken)
La Muse - Renée Fauré (spoken)
Second voice in the Barcarolle - Jeannine Collard (mezzo-soprano)
Choeurs René Duclos
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/André Cluytens
Recorded 1-5, 9-11, 21-23 September, 22 October, 22 December 1964, 19 February 1965 Salle Wagram, Paris; 26, 27 May 1965, Barcelona
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 7243 5 67979 2 5 [2CDs: 76.29+75.47]


Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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André Cluytens recorded 'Les Contes d'Hoffmann' twice. The first time was in 1948 with a cast of French singers in a production based on the Opéra-Comique. This second recording dates from the 1960s and is a deliberate attempt to create a star vehicle. Both versions used the Choudens version with Guiraud recitatives. Neither version attempts to present the work with spoken dialogue or to explore what Offenbach originally wrote. But there remains a very big difference between them, and this later one is perpetually having to compete with its older sister. Where the older recording scores is that it presents a fine array of the leading French singers of the 1940s. Almost uniquely, it is a recording of the work with an idiomatic French sound and this is something that few subsequent recordings have captured. The cast on this later recording is more international and no matter how idiomatic their French, something is lost.

'Les Contes d'Hoffmann' suffers from similar textual problems to Bizet's 'Carmen' and for a similar reason - the composer's death. In fact the librettists of 'Carmen' also wrote libretti for Offenbach's operettas (though not 'Les Contes d'Hoffmann') and both operas were written for the Opéra Comique, so spoken dialogue was essential even if the works are of a more serious bent. And both libretti are shot through with stock Opéra Comique characters such as students, smugglers and the like. But 'Carmen' has a distinct textual advantage over 'Les Contes d'Hoffmann'. Bizet survived to see the opera through to performance and the vocal score through to publication. Offenbach did not. Granted he did complete a vocal score and Michael Kaye and others have done sterling work in reconstructing his lost original. But just as Bizet made numerous changes in rehearsal, so Offenbach was wont to alter and cut during the rehearsal process. So his vocal score cannot be regarded as the definitive opera. It would surely have changed had he lived. 'Les Contes d'Hoffmann' and 'Carmen' have another thing in common, problems with length. The composers' first thoughts amounted in each case to a long opera. 'Carmen' was cut during the rehearsal process and still ran to nearly three hours (not including intervals) on its opening night. 'Les Contes d'Hoffmann' has a similar problem and the tendency to restore material cut or lost simply makes the opera even longer. The version used here is basically someone's early 20th Century pragmatic attempt to create a coherent piece. It is not what the composer wrote but, to a certain extent, it works. Where this traditional version falls down is in the use of sung recitative. It makes the work easier for non-French speakers, but slows the whole opera down, making Offenbach's speedy prologue into a sluggish Act I.

The problem with the recitatives is that they make the whole piece seem sluggish. This is particularly true in Act I where the students can easily outstay their welcome. After all this is only a prologue to the main story. On this recording Act I takes 30.34 minutes whereas in Cluytens’ earlier recording, which uses substantially the same edition, this act takes 26 minutes. The Bonynge recording Act I (called the Prologue there) takes only 25 minutes. It is a pleasure to turn to either of these recordings.

This recording uses three singers and an actress for the heroines and three singers for the four villains. George London sings two of the villains. As Lindorf, Nicola Ghiuselev sounds very Russian with a focused but rather curdled tone. He lends a suitable darkness to Lindorf, but suffers some strain in his opening aria. I never really felt that he managed to endue the character with a sense of evil. He is also rather at a loss in the little satirical duet with Hoffmann, where Nicolai Gedda judges Hoffmann's tone nicely. For Bonynge, Gabriel Bacquier demonstrates just how Lindorf should be sung. Bringing a wonderful French style to the role, he makes the music count and hides well any sense of strain. And he goes on to sing all of the villains.

Act 1 suits Gedda very well as his tone lends credibility to the character's youth. But in Act 2, in his opening Romance, where he needs to open up in the upper register, his voice fails to respond with the requisite warmth and vibrancy of tone. Gedda, of course, never sounds strained and his Hoffmann remains so stylish. But Placido Domingo, despite his wayward French, sings the role for Bonynge with such burnished tone that it is difficult not to be seduced.

As Spalanzani, Michel Sénéchal is a model of style and I only wish he had more to do. This also goes for Jean-Christophe as a baritone Niklausse. He delivers Niklausse's little song in Act I with style and wit, one only wishes he had been allocated a proper baritone part.

As Coppelius, George London sounds fuzzy and rather unfocused. Neither he nor Ghiuselev sound completely at home in the idiom and certainly London fails to make the passage work in Coppelius's aria count for much. He also sounds rather strained.

Gianna d'Angelo is no more than adequate as Olympia.. Certainly her roulades are passable, if a little smudged, but she is not in sufficient control to make them count dramatically and musically, the way Sutherland does. And d'Angelo does not ornament Olympia's second verse. This may be authentic, but for those of us brought up on Sutherland's Olympia, this seems a missed opportunity.

The Venice act (performed second) highlights the peculiarity of having Niklausse sung by baritone, Jean-Christoph Benoit. No explanation is given in the booklet for this curious event. Some adjustment of the text has to be made and the Barcarolle has to be sung by another (mezzo-soprano) singer, though in fact this may be more authentic.

As Giulietta, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf makes a very aristocratic courtesan. Sounding disdainful rather than smouldering she remains, nevertheless, very stylish. And what she actually sings, is of course, very beautiful. After all Schwarzkopf never made a bad recording.

The rather darker Hoffmann of this act does not entirely suit Gedda's voice type, but he remains stylish and convincing dramatically. As Dapertutto, Ernest Blanc is very stylish, displaying a fatal charm and in 'Scintille Diamant' he copes with the taxing tessitura confidently. He makes a most fascinating villain and I only wish that he had been allowed to sing more (or even all) of them.

In Act 4, Victoria de Los Angeles does not completely convince as Antonia. Her interpretation is convincingly youthful and girlish, but she does rather show some strain in the upper register. Still, she is a fine performer and her duets with Gedda are some of the loveliest things on the record as well as being convincingly idiomatic.

Rather than having the 4th villain sung by another singer, Dr. Miracle is played by George London who is no more convincing in this role than as Coppelius. Though the role seems to suit him better, his performance remains effortful. So the climactic trio with Miracle, Antonia and her mother, is something of a disappointment with the strain showing, in different ways, on both de Los Angeles and London.

In the Epilogue, the role of the Muse is spoken by a French actress and she does sound wonderful. Being as this is the traditional Choudens edition, the role of the Muse is reduced to a minimum. This has the effect of splitting the role off completely from Niklausse which reduces, even further, the sense of the plot.

Giving the role of Niklausse to a baritone has the effect of making the vocal texture of the opera a little bottom heavy. It means that the heroine is usually the only female voice in each act. So inevitably, on this recording, the spotlight goes onto the three heroines. But splitting the soprano role into three has the effect of over spotlighting the individual sopranos. With only one role to sing there is no possibility of appreciating other aspects of their approach. It does highlight the weakness of each performance though both de Los Angeles and Schwarzkopf do contribute much to delight.

Nicolai Gedda's performance in the title role is a tour de force. He is about the only foreign singer on this recording to sing in anything like an idiomatic French manner. He has a good feel for the style of the piece, but I must confess that I would have preferred a rather richer tenor voice, with a little more depth to it. But that is being rather hyper-critical.

Whereas the heroines and the villains are split between singers, Jacques Loreau is the only one who doubles roles in the correct manner and he sings all the character tenor parts brilliantly. All the smaller roles are sung idiomatically by French singers. But instead of providing a secure background for the international singers, they do seem to rather show them up.

When looking at other recordings of the opera, length, pacing and edition become a very big issue. Cambreling's performance of the complete Oeser edition (which adds music from other Offenbach pieces) has a mammoth 214 minutes of music. The two recordings based on Michael Kaye's critical edition both have nearly 3 hours of music. Jeffrey Tate's now deleted recording uses as much of Kaye's edition as was available when the recording was made and uses spoken dialogue. Whereas Kent Nagano uses Kaye's complete edition preserving the recitatives. He balances this by taking quite a brisk view of the tempi and the pacing of the piece thus does not suffer too much. Of course each of these recordings offers a different selection of items and some include extras as appendixes. Whether Offenbach would have wanted the opera to go anywhere near the 3 hour barrier is a moot point, lovely though some of the new music is. There is probably still room for a good new recording, with dialogue, taking into account Michael Kaye's discoveries and with a single soprano as all the heroines. This is especially important if the role of Stella is expanded in the Epilogue. Until that happens, I shall continue to return to Sutherland and Bonynge, and the older Cluytens for its unique sense of style.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Tony Haywood

 



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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