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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
The Tales of Hoffmann – score completed by Guiraud (1881)
(Translation; Arundell sung in English)
Hoffmann - Robert Rounseville (tenor)
Olympia – Dorothy Bond (soprano)
Giulietta – Margherita Grandi (soprano)
Antonia – Ann Ayars (soprano)
Coppelius, Daperutto and Dr Miracle – Bruce Dargavel (bass-baritone)
Nicklausse – Monica Sinclair (mezzo-soprano)
Spalanzani and Frantz – Grahame Clifford (baritone)
Schlemil, Crespel and Hermann – Owen Brannigan (bass)
Cochenille and Pitichinaccio – Murray Dickie (tenor)
Luther – Fisher Morgan (bass)
Nathaniel – René Soames (tenor)
The Sadler’s Wells Chorus
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Plus a previously unissued excerpt of Beecham playing piano extracts from the opera [15.39]
SOMM BEECHAM 13-2 [2 CDs: 141.27]

 

This set of The Tales of Hoffman is the soundtrack to the famous Powell-Pressburger film of 1951 though it was recorded at Shepperton Studios in 1947 for Decca. Looking back at the Record Guide of the early 1950s and reading the review of this performance – a bit of a stinker – prepared me for the worst. But in the end I found much here that is compelling, though it can’t be denied that the orchestral contribution is on something of a different plane from that of the singers, a rather incongruous multi-national bunch. Messrs Shawe-Taylor and Sackville-West were in fine snickering form when they traduced the American tenor Robert Rounseville as a Yankee college boy. Well, transatlantic he may have been but that’s no impediment to suave characterisation. In fact he’s perfectly acceptable if not outstanding. There’s a bit of spread toward the bottom of his compass but he brings energy to a role I could imagine would well have suited Heddle Nash, rather better really than Rounseville. His Olympia is Dorothy Bond, fearless in coloratura and strikingly dramatic. Margherita Grandi’s Giulietta is perhaps just too elegant for the role but Welsh bass-baritone Bruce Dargavel makes a strong showing; the voice is not always perfectly centred but in compensation he has bags of character and is one of the stars of this performance. In the smaller roles we have a veritable cornucopia of emergent talent; Monica Sinclair shows real embryonic talent as Nicklausse, querulous, demanding and suitably assured; well-sustained bottom of her range as well, even this early in her career. Owen Brannigan takes three little roles being especially sarcastic as Schlemil, Offenbach’s little joke of a name. Murray Dickie, later of course a stalwart in Vienna, is here in the roles of Cochenille and Pitichinaccio. One of the more intriguing turns – that’s the best way I can describe it – is that of Grahame Clifford. Now Clifford was a famous member of D’Oyly Carte’s troupe and there’s more than a whiff of the London stage about his impersonation and patter. He does a fine parlando act for example in There sleep in peace in the First Act though I can certainly imagine that this won’t be to all tastes and even more so is his eyebrow cocking G and S knockabout in And now, Ladies and Gentlemen later on in the Act.

There are other obvious points to note. There are very heavy cuts and the opera is sung in English in the Arundell translation. The Chorus is on firmly Anglo form in the Guests’ Chorus – more Marylebone than Montparnasse - but contribute their relatively light share to the proceedings. The orchestra is on song - really splendid. They are ebullient in the Prologue’s Finale, percussion to the fore, brass ringing and are wonderfully alert in Her reputation well deserved where Beecham allows woodwind pointing of marvellous wit. The strings shine behind Rounseville in his dramatic Act II Fair Angel and the principal clarinet (Reginald Kell?) shines brightly in the Third Act No more to sing alas. Beecham, of course, is the real star, a ringmaster who had been acquainted with the work since at least 1910 when he’d actually gone into the recording studios in his very first sessions to record snippets from the opera (for Columbia with Caroline Hatchard, Walter Hyde, Frederick Ranalow and Edith Evans. Yes, that Edith Evans). His affection and dramatic impetus are everywhere apparent, his control of tension and line, his limpid accompaniments and eruptive Francophile drive. As an adjunct and selected from more than two hours of surviving material is a fifteen minute segment of Beecham going through the opera on the piano whilst singing – the word is an approximation for the sounds that are emitted by the knighted orifice – bits of the score for Powell and Pressburger’s delectation (they didn’t know the score; it was the conductor who had originally approached them).

So in conclusion this is hardly likely to be anyone’s first or fourth choice. It’s cut, in English, with some quixotic voices. But the recorded sound has come up really very well. There is joie de vivre from Beecham and orchestral excellence as well as a treasurable sense of time and of place, which I found frequently uplifting.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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