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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819 -80)
Les contes d'Hoffmann

Placido Domingo, Agnes Baltsa, Ileana Cotrubas, Luciana Serra, Geraint Evans, Nicolai Ghiuselev
Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Georges Prêtre;
dir. John Schlesinger (ROH, 1981)
NTSC 4:3 format; Dolby Stereo.
WARNER DVD 0630-19392-2 [150 mins]

Offenbach’s last, unfinished, work is a masterpiece of romantic fantasy based upon stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann. This DVD is of a recording produced by BBC Television of the late John Schlesinger's magnificent production for Covent Garden in the early Eighties.

Vocally this performance is outstanding, led by Placido Domingo in his prime, surely the best Hoffmann of his generation. Not only is he vocally stylish but also dramatically convincing in a part which is not easy to pull off. His ‘Ballad of Kleinzach’ in the Prologue sets the scene for the entire opera. Domingo also makes you believe that the doll, Olympia (played here in an outstanding performance by Luciana Serra) is a woman rather than an artefact. Domingo is also in good voice in his duets in Acts three and four.

Agnes Baltsa is a voluptuous Giulietta and Ileana Cotrubas's Antonia is well portrayed. The dark voice of Nicolai Ghiuselev achieves a real sense of evil as Dr Miracle and Geraint Evans as Coppelius is most enjoyable. The secret of performing this opera is to make you believe in the unbelievable and in this the cast succeeds to a remarkable degree: it is hard to think that we shall see this opera better sung.

It is therefore most disappointing that the colour appears throughout as faded and the impact of William Dudley's spectacular sets and Maria Bjornson's costumes is minimised. This may be due to the NTSC processing or the use of inferior analogue cameras but it is seriously detrimental to the enjoyment of what is otherwise an outstanding DVD.

In recordings the conducting of Georges Prêtre has sometimes been disappointing. Here however he was in good form and the orchestral playing is enjoyable, with the various leitmotivs being played with conviction (although Prêtre cannot dispel the memory of Sir Thomas Beecham’s masterly conducting of this score – especially in the famous Barcarolle). The sound recording alas is on a par with the colour and is decidedly lacking in clarity and dynamic and frequency range. The presentation is adequate but no notes or extras are offered.

Overall this is a very enjoyable performance of a fascinating opera with marvellous singing and acting which is let down by mediocre colour and sound recording.

Arthur Baker



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