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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann - opera in three acts with Prologue and Epilogue (1882)
Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré founded on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman.
First produced at the Opéra Comique, Paris, 10 February 1882
Hoffmann, Vincenzo La Scola (ten); Olympia, Desirée Rancatore (sop); Giulietta, Sara Allegreta (sop); Antonia, Annalisa Raspagliosi (sop); Nicklausse, Elsa Maurus (mezzo); Lindorf/Dapertutto/Coppelius/Dr Miracle, Ruggero Raimondi (bass-bar); Spalazini, Thomas Morris (ten); Nathanael, Francesco Zingarello (ten); Stella, Tiziano Carraro (sop); Crespel /Luther, Lorenzo Muzzi (bass); Hermann /Schlémil, Nicolas Rivenq (bar);
Chorus Lyrico Marchigiana
Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana/Frédéric Chaslin
rec. August 2004, production of the Arena Macerata, Italy.
Presented in dts digital surround sound, Dolby, PCM 2.0
Menu language English. Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.
Notes and synopsis in Italian, English, German and French
DYNAMIC DVD 33470 [2 DVDs: 169:00]

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The life of Jacques Offenbach is nearly as complicated and tragic as his last, and greatest, work, ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’. Jacques was originally Jacob, born in 1819 in Cologne, the son of a jobbing Jewish fiddler-cum-music teacher. The son revealed such early talent that the father made many sacrifices to send his son to study in Paris. There he in turn scraped a living as a ‘session’ cellist, in today’s idiom. At the time of the ‘World Exhibition’ in Paris in 1855, frustrated by inability to get his compositions performed, he had opened the minuscule ‘Bouffes Parisiens’ theatre. Visitors to ‘The Exhibition’ flocked to hear his tuneful operettas satirising contemporary politics and society manners. As one successful work followed another Rossini dubbed Offenbach ‘The Mozart of the Champs Elysées’. This frivolous time in France finished abruptly with the Franco-Prussian war and the siege of Paris in 1870-71. The fall of Emperor Napoleon III quickly followed and with it the collapse of the ‘Second Empire’. Perhaps Offenbach with his Germanic guttural French felt his day in France was over. He went to America still harbouring a wish to write a true opera that would be accepted and performed the Paris ‘Opéra Comique’.

On his return to Paris, another composer generously ceded Offenbach the libretto of Hoffmann. He set to work on the plot. It tells the story of Hoffmann’s loves and his nemesis, Dr Lindorf, who assumes the disguises of Coppelius, Dapertutto and Dr Miracle to thwart Hoffman’s pursuit of the ladies of the story. Hoffmann in his turn is rescued from the machinations, and worst intentions, of Dr Lindorf by his companion Nicklausse, a trousers role. As financial necessity involved Offenbach producing other work during the period of composition, progress was slow and aggravated by the composer’s declining health. At his death he had only orchestrated the Prologue and Act 1. The remainder of the work was in piano score and was orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud; he who set the dialogue of Carmen as sung recitative. The work was presented at the ‘Opéra Comique’ on 10 February 1881 and ran for over 100 performances in that first season. However, the convoluted story does not end there. Others added spoken dialogue, altered the sequence of the acts, and their location, as well as setting sung recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue. This performance is based on the traditional Choudens edition with sung recitative. The Finale is taken from the Oeser critical edition and the Venice act comes second. It has different singers as the women pursued by Hoffmann whilst Ruggero Raimondi takes all the villain roles. The timing of the DVD recording is significantly longer than that on either the Warner version from the 1982 Covent Garden performances, with Domingo as Hoffmann, or that from Théâtre de la Monnaie in 1997 with a largely Francophone cast (Arthaus Music). On CD the most extensive performing edition is that on Philips conducted by Jeffrey Tate. It is based on the Oeser Edition plus other more recently discovered pages.

This performance takes place in the open air in the curved Arena Sferisterio in Macerata that was once the venue for a ball game involving ricochets off the long wall. The presentation here misses a major trick by not showing the setting of the Arena and its stage in all its glory. This would also have helped in getting to grips with the staging when so much is presented in camera close-up. With the production using projections onto the back wall, a two-tier stage and imaginative lighting effects, it is often difficult to get a perspective on the action. It is a very different atmosphere than a traditional staged performance in a theatre. The action is often focused on the centre of the stage front with chorus or individuals on the raised rear. There is no traditional tavern for the prologue or epilogues (Disc 1 tr.1 and Disc 2 tr. 8). With the colours predominantly black and white in act 1, the Olympia act, stands out for its colour. In the prologue a mute Stella represents Hoffmann’s three loves whilst lithe dancers follow the music with Lindorf watching, his acolytes in black and with satanic wings. There is some loss of immediacy and presence in the sound that at times can be rather distant and lacking dynamic contrast. Vincenzo La Scola sings a strong-voiced Kleinzach (Disc 1 tr. 4) but as in the rest of the opera his voice lacks much palette of colour. Olympia is first seen in a red cage on the upper stage (Disc 1 tr. 6). Coppelius arrives on a penny-farthing bicycle (tr. 8). His C’est moi gives the first indication of Ruggero Raimondi’s threadbare vocal state that is further reinforced by his Scintille diament as Dapertutto in the Venice act (act 2 tr. 3). This is a great pity as his acted portrayal of Hoffmann’s sinister nemesis is a considerable strength in this production. As Olympia, in reality a mechanical doll, Desirée Rancatore sings and acts superbly. Her Les oiseaux dans la charmille (Disc 1 tr.10) is magnificently sung with the climactic note hit dead-centre.

The Venice scene is given as act 2. It is denoted in the informative booklet as act 2 tracks 1-6 of disc 1. The scene setting has the profile of a gondola on the upper stage with projections and shadows of passing population. A framed mirror dominates the front lower stage and in which Hoffmann is destined to lose his reflection. The introductory barcarolle is well sung by the lyric Sara Allegreta as Giulieta and Elsa Maurus as a sonorous and well-tuned Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s muse. Here, as in the epilogue, she cuts an appealing figure and portrays the character well, both vocally and in her acting. Sara Allegreta is also a convincing Antonio as she tempts Hoffmann at Dapertutto’s encouragement. In the final act (Disc 2 trs. 1-6) it is back to strict black and white on a sparse stage. Antonia is sung by the rich-toned, but unsteady, Annalisa Raspagliosi who finishes her aria with a raw top note (act 2 tr. 6). The Crespel of Lorenzo Muzzi might have done a better job vocally than Raimondi. But in this scene Raimondi is superb in his acted portrayal of Dr. Miracle. Dressed in black with top hat, his donning of red operating gloves as he directs Antonia with a sheet covering a chaise longue is spookily effective.

This performance is distinctly different from the normal staged presentations on the two issues referred to. In its own way it tellingly illuminates Hoffmann’s tale. For an opera whose story is as nearly as convoluted as its composition, such idiosyncrasy has its virtues. Despite some vocal limitations I enjoyed the challenge of the producer’s concept and the designer’s realisation.

Robert J. Farr





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