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Jacques OFFENBACH (1825 – 1899)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann – Neil Shicoff (tenor)
Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto – Bryn Terfel (baritone)
La Muse/Niklausse – Susanne Mentzer (mezzo-soprano)
Olympia – Désirée Rancatore (soprano)
Antonia – Ruth Ann Swenson (soprano)
Giulietta – Beatrice Uria-Montzon (mezzo-soprano)
Andres/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio – Michel Sénéchal (tenor)
La Voix de la mère – Nora Gubisch (mezzo-soprano)
Spalanzani – Alain Vernhes (baritone)
Nathanael – Jean-Luc Maurette (baritone)
Hermann – Josep Miquel Ribot (baritone)
Schlemil – Nigel Smith (baritone)
Stella – Bambi Floquet (non-singing)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera Nationale de Paris/Jesus Lopez-Cobos
Robert Carsen (director)
Philippe Giraudeau (designer)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Ian Burton (dramaturgy)
François Rousillon (director for TV and Video)
TDK DVOPLCDH [2DVDs: 1:14 + 1:37]


Robert Carsen’s Paris Opera production of the Tales of Hoffmann opens promisingly on a strikingly lit bare stage, all close-ups and low camera-angles. Musically it strikes a positive note as well, as Offenbach’s opening chorus and solo for the Muse are used. The singer in the first production was not up to the role of the Muse and Niklausse so much was cut; singers have been suffering for this ever since. Here, Susanne Mentzer made a striking Muse and transforms into a creditable Niklausse.

For the prologue proper we find ourselves in a theatre bar. In another striking image the bar spreads right across the stage dividing the chorus from us. It provides a suitable stage for Hoffmann’s antics in Klein Zack. Hoffmann is played by Neil Shicoff. This is a modern dress production, so Shicoff is saddled with a rather shabby suit and looks remarkably like a down-at-heels businessman with a bad haircut, rather than a romantic poet. Shicoff’s voice is still creditable but lacks the flexibility it once had. On the DVD he just lacked the youth or style to make a romantic hero. (Youth is not everything in this role, even late in his career Alfredo Kraus made an unbelievably stylish Hoffmann).

Bryn Terfel’s Lindorf starts off well, and he is aided by some stunning lighting (along with more close-ups and low camera angles). Musicologically this is a very mixed production. Terfel plays all the villains and Michel Sénéchal plays all of the comic tenor parts. But we have four different heroines. The basic score is the corrupt but dramatically viable Choudens Edition of 1907, to which a number of new items have been added, notably strengthening the role of the Muse/Niklausse. Sung recitative has been retained. This leads to one of the opera’s perennial problems nowadays – its sheer length. If you add extra material to the Choudens score but keep the recitative then the pace of the opera can flag. Only with spoken dialogue can we get a version which is pacy enough to cope with the extra musical material.

I rather enjoyed Carsen’s rather riotous way with this prologue. Too often the carousing students can wear a bit thin and he has come up with a way of making this scene work. Scenically the production is quite spectacular – at one point in this scene Stella and the entire cast of Don Giovanni drift past on a huge Don Giovanni stage set.

Act 1 opens in rather an uncertain space. Familiarity with the remainder of Carsen’s production led me to presume that it was meant to be back-stage, as Carsen sets the entire opera in the theatre itself. This Act rather lacked the folie de grandeur that I would expect from the setting. Carsen’s treatment of Olympia was also a little self-indulgent. Désirée Rancatore wears a doll body under her costume, to enhance her artificiality. Vocally she was quite at ease and she entered into Carsen’s vulgar antics with a will, using a fan as a cod microphone, having sex with Hoffmann in a cart full of straw and eventually ending up naked (well just wearing the naked doll costume). Puzzlingly the chorus retain their Spanish costumes from the previous scene so we must presume that they are intended to be the same people.

As Hoffmann, Shicoff does a nice line in boyish naivety, even if it sits oddly with his visual image and his voice tends to go a little steely under pressure. One of the joys of the set is Michel Sénéchal singing Cochenille in this scene, always with a twinkle in his eye. Mentzer’s Niklausse is characterful and stylish, but her voice becomes a little uncontrolled at time. Terfel projects a magnificently evil character, but he lacks the sense of humour that someone like Geraint Evans brought to the role of Coppelius. As a result he seems like an evil corporate apparatchik rather than a figure in a Romantic story.

For Act 2 (the Antonia act, given its correct position in the play) the action moves to an orchestra pit with the stage, curtains closed, above. Antonia, played by Ruth Ann Swenson, was rather robust of figure and of tone; I would have liked her to sound more fragile. In both Acts 1 and 2 Niklausse’s role included material not in the standard edition and Mentzer took full advantage of this, giving Niklausse a more rounded portrayal than is possible with the truncated version.

Antonia’s ‘C’est l’amour’ was stunningly sung by Swenson, but unfortunately in the duets Shicoff just sounded too effortful. Terfel’s Dr. Miracle enters in tails through the curtains of the stage above the empty orchestra pit where Antonia and Hoffmann had had their meeting. Carsen’s musical allusions start to cohere a little. Miracle is the conductor here and when he conjures up the ghost of Antonia’s mother, it is as Donna Anna in the self-same set of Don Giovanni that we saw in the prologue. Don Giovanni features quite heavily in the production with many of the characters referring to a score of that opera.

This Act had some of the most dramatically powerful moments in the entire opera, though Swenson failed to extract the right amount of pathos. As Antonia dies, Dr. Miracle starts conducting an orchestra in the now populated pit and as the act finishes, the curtains on the upper stage close.

For Act 3, Venice has become the auditorium of a theatre with rows of seats rising facing us. As the curtain rises just Niklausse and Giulietta are sat in the seats and as they sing the Barcarolle, the rows of seats sway back and forth to the music! Gradually the ‘audience’ arrives and sits in the seats, though it is not long before they abandon sitting and have a (very discreet) orgy.

Hoffmann makes his entry onto the stage in front of the ‘audience’. In this Act, Terfel’s Dapertutto seems to be a director staging a show. Musically this Act is the least satisfactory, retaining its substantially corrupt form with Dapertutto’s ‘Scintille Diamant’ and the sextet. Giulietta is played by the strikingly glamorous Beatrice Uria-Monzon. Unfortunately I found that her vibrato-laden voice with its lack of line, did not live up to her visual image and she lacked the requisite sense of style needed for Offenbach’s music. The ending, inevitably given the edition, was rather unsubstantial. The sextet was a show staged by Dapertutto and the ending just seemed to evaporate.

Things improved in the Epilogue. This was more extensive than usual, making much more of the identification of Stella with the other three heroines. It concluded in a very striking manner with an aria for the Muse and chorus as she leads Hoffmann off towards the light.

For a number of people, the big draw of this set will be Bryn Terfel as the four villains. He makes a very striking villain and is a significant presence throughout the opera. His singing throughout is exemplary and he contributes some significantly powerful moments, but I would have liked a little more Gallic style.

‘Tales of Hoffmann’ is a very tricky opera to stage and with its uncertain and shifting musicological heritage there is no single, strongly dramatic version that can be used. Inevitably, most versions of the opera sprawl. Carsen’s attempt to link all this up with the image of the theatre might have seemed like a good idea, but too often it left me puzzling as to what was going on. Perhaps I would have been happier if the performances had been of a higher calibre. All the singers were perfectly credible, but I wanted more. And in the premier opera house in France I was distressed by the lack of French singers and more importantly, the requisite Offenbach style.

If you want a DVD of the opera, this will do quite well but personally I’d rather wait for something with that little bit extra.

Robert Hugill

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