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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819 - 1880)
Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1881)
Hoffmann - Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Olympia – Mattiwilda Dobbs (soprano)
Giulietta – Rosalind Elias (soprano)
Antonia – Lucine Amara (soprano)
Nicklausse – Helen Vanni (soprano)
Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, Dapertutto - George London (bass)
Spalanzani – Paul Franke (tenor)
Crespel – Norman Scott (bass)
Nathanael – Robert Nagy (tenor)
Hermann – Calvin Marsh (baritone)
Schlemil – Clifford Harvout (baritone)
Luther – George Cehanovsky (baritone)
Andres, Cochenille, Frantz, Pittichinaccio – Alessio da Paolis (tenor)
Antonia's Mother – Mignon Dunn (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera/Jean Morel
Recorded 7 February 1959
LIVING STAGE LS1129 [62.27 + 75.13]
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Another splendid night live at the Met’s French Wing enshrines a 1959 performance from Gedda that will do very nicely indeed as ancillary documentation of his Hoffmann, a role he was famously to record. On the night of February 7th 1959 he was on regal form and his is the dominating presence in a very well and richly cast performance presided over by the estimable, indeed thoroughly impressive specialist Jean Morel, who was brought in to cover just such repertoire following the lacuna left by the departure earlier of such stalwarts as Beecham and Monteux.

The edition is the Choudens, which therefore includes an aria for George London’s Dapertutto that has gravitated from another Offenbach work. But the textual problems are minimal, the musical rewards here maximal. The sound is immediate and good though it has a kind of omnipresent low-level rumble – like an indifferently transferred disc that has enshrined LP rumble – and this can prove rather tiring for the ear. Morel though was on captivating form in the pit, proving effervescent and galvanizing in equal measure. Here, one feels, is a conductor with just the right touch, a rapier dipped in champagne, for this of all works. He clearly inherited the mantle of his two distinguished predecessors with due honour and he shows how sheerly dynamic and propulsive this music is when conducted with such freshness, rhythmic acuity and drive. He also marshals the chorus with discipline and fine attack.

If we note the highlights then one can point to George London’s assumption of what the cast list calls The Four Villains. His Lindorf is etched with villainy though nowhere in his impersonations does London reach for the ham; this is controlled and masterly actor-singing, with nuances conveyed with subtlety. His Act II Coppelius sounds almost censoriously and sententiously grave and his Dr Miracle proves powerful and authoritative with considerable reserves of weight. Hoffmann’s Click-Clack introduces us to Gedda’s superby focused tone – there’s nothing of the metallic here – as well as his eloquent legato, sappy consonants, the "s" and "t" both gloriously brusque and witty, and his personality-rich musicianship. Don’t overlook the First and Second Act choruses either; Drig, drig, drig is unusually well disciplined this early in a production, and the vivacious rhythms of the finale of the first act are propulsive indeed. The orchestra is on as good form as their choral colleagues, shining in the Entr’acte that begins Act II where Paul Franke proves an excellent Spalanzani.

As Olympia we hear Mattiwilda Dobbs whose finely pitched, rather open, girlish sound possesses a curiously involving sense of self. Her trills are not quite electric enough but they certainly pass muster. Another less well-known singer, Rosalind Elias, takes the part of Giulietta and she does so with distinction. She has a powerful voice though one deployed with flexibility across the range. Her exchanges with Gedda’s Hoffmann in Act III’s Aujourd’hui, cepedant possess urgency and trenchant rhythmic impetus; they’re also exciting dramatically, which is the paradigm of a convincing theatrical assumption. Lucine Amara is good as Antonia, warm certainly if not quite up to Elias’s standard.

Try to listen to the orchestral principals as well. Listen for instance to the excellent wind solos in Hoffmann’s Act IV Frantz! C’est ici! and to the equally involving string cantilena – though to be parsimonious one should also note that the recorded balance has them rather distantly placed in the aural perspective. The principal clarinet shows his colours in Ne plus chanter!

So whilst Gedda is the star this is a real ensemble success, presided over by a knowledgeable and excellent operatic conductor. You might want to augment your commercial Gedda with it. But you’ll need to do some digging about with regard to cast lists and supporting documentation. The former here is incomplete and there are no notes, as is usual from this company, one of a number who issue recordings of this kind in this way. Only the six principal cast members have been listed so I’ve added the full cast as I believe them to have been on that February day. The dilemma is that in indulging companies such as this by buying their product, so lazily presented, you might be reducing the likelihood that a more responsible outfit might present this set with full supporting information, biographies, cast lists and the like. That’s the market place for you.

Jonathan Woolf




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