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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819–1880)
Les contes d’Hoffmann (1881)
Acquiles Machado (tenor) – Hoffmann; Konstantin Gorny (bass-baritone) – Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, Dapertutto; Katherine Goeldner (mezzo) – Nicklausse, The Muse; María Bayo (soprano) – Antonia; Valentina Kutzarova (soprano) – Giulietta; Milagros Poblador (soprano) – Olympia; Christopher Fel (bass) – Luther, Crespel; Christian Jean (tenor) – Spalanzani; Itxaro Mentxaka (mezzo) – Antonia’s mother; José Ruiz (tenor) – Andrés, Cochenille, Franz, Pitichinaccio; Marco Moncloa (bass) – Hermann, Schlemil; Manuel De Diego (baritone) – Nathanaël; Itziar Fernández De Unda (actor) – Stella; David Aguayo Marqués – Bass voice;
Chorus of Ópera de Bilbao
Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa/Alain Guingal
Stage director: Giancarlo Del Monaco; Set and Costume Design: Michael Scott; Lighting designer: Wolfgang von Zoubek; TV director: Angel Luis Ramírez
rec. live, Palacio Euskalduna de Bilbao, 12, 15 May 2006
Audio formats: LPCM Stereo; DTS Surround Sound
Extra features: Interviews with Maria Bayo, Aquiles Machado and Juan Carlos Matellanes (President of ABAO)
OPUS ARTE OA0968D [2 DVDs: 185:00]

Palacio Euskalduna in Bilbao, where this Contes d’Hoffmann, was recorded, is a large congress and music centre, inaugurated in February 1999. The total area of the modernistic building is 25,000m² and the Main Hall seats 2,200 visitors. Judging from what I heard through my loudspeakers the acoustics are excellent and the stage seems fairly wide. They don’t play opera all that often. This season – 2006/07 – there are six productions and a total of 29 performances.
The sets for this production are of the all-purpose kind: one gets no impression of Luther’s wine cellar being a tavern, that the Giulietta act takes place in Venice. Props are in the main limited to chairs being moved around for sundry purposes and a grand piano, on the sides of which the name ‘STELLA’ has been scrawled. To this instrument Hoffmann returns, to sit at or act on top of it. Some lighting effects are quite spectacular and the end of the opera, where all the characters from the earlier acts return, is lit in flaming red, hinting at the dwellings of a certain horn-adorned potentate, personified with uncanny likeness by Konstantin Gorny. The era in which the action takes place is unclear. Sometimes, as in the Olympia act, there is blatant contradiction when her couplets are accompanied by a hand-operated street organ while Spalanzani manoeuvres the doll with a decidedly present-day remote control. It is highly entertaining in a slap-stick way and Milagros Poblador makes a tremendously clever dollification of Olympia with jerky movements and doll-like blinkings.
The most controversial thing about this production is the way Hoffmann himself is portrayed. The ‘real’ Hoffmann, whether referring to the historic person or the character of the libretto, was/is a highly intellectual man, with good taste and noble manners. All right, he gets himself blind drunk through the course of the opera, but this Hoffmann is from the outset a dropout in more than one way. His entrance in the prologue presents us with a lumbering, hunchback, Rigoletto-like creature, dressed in ankle-length overcoat, already half-drunk, carrying a bottle from which he quaffs in big gulps. His behaviour and facial expressions lead us to believe that here is an imbecile. One feels sorry for him and wishes that someone from social services would appear and bring him back to the asylum where he belongs. Of course he has feelings for the women, the question is if they ever had feelings for him given the state of him. I think this is a misconception on the part of the director and it is humiliating to the character but also – and this is more serious – to people in various stages of mental disability who really shouldn’t be exposed to such degradation. I got a feeling of repugnance, even more of sorrow and – eventually – of indignation. I had much the same feelings some years ago when seeing Die tote Stadt at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, where poor Torsten Kerl had to create Paul along the same lines.
Acting a part like this can be no easy task – even, or mainly, mentally – and I think Aquiles Machado, a former Cardiff Singer of the World finalist, does what he can, and his reading is consistent. Moreover, and this is still in some way first priority in opera, he sings excellently. His voice has a silvery timbre and ringing top. There’s no bawling and finely nuanced utterances are delivered with a warmth that makes one feel even more pity for the character. His evil genius, the four bass-baritone roles, are done with the same diabolic consistency. Konstantin Gorny’s tone is not among the most ingratiating but his rasp enhances the evil. Katharine Goeldner’s expressive Nicklausse is an unqualified success, both scenically and vocally. She seems predestined for great things.
I have already mentioned Milagros Poblador’s eye-catching Olympia and she sings her aria expertly. She hasn’t the bell-like sonority of some predecessors but technically the altitude doesn’t pose any problems for her. She also indulges in unwritten pyrotechnics that almost steal the show. Valentina Kutzarova’s Giulietta is memorable less for the fairly cool acting than the glorious singing. Here is a voice to look out for. Maybe the star of the performance is the lovely Maria Bayo as Antonia. She may have lost a little of the purity of tone, she may look a little over-aged for the role but she is so musical, she is so good with the words and the duet with Hoffmann is certainly the vocal high-spot of the evening.
There is some good and some not so good singing in the minor roles but the experienced José Ruiz in the four character tenor roles is outstanding. The orchestra plays extremely well with glowing string tone but they needed a firmer hand than Alain Guingal’s to get the volume below forte sometimes. The choral singing is a bit rough-and-ready and the choir are not always in phase with the orchestra. The sound is excellent and there are enough tracks to give easy access to favourite numbers – and skip the bad ones. As for other versions I have a not yet seen and heard starry cast production from Lyon 1993, conducted by Kent Nagano and with José Van Dam, Gabriel Bacquier, Natalie Dessay and Barbara Hendricks in leading roles. I borrowed it from a friend who was impressed by the singing but didn’t care much for the modernist sets. The safest recommendation, which I saw a long time ago, is a Covent Garden production from 1981 with Georges Prêtre conducting and Domingo, Baltsa and Luciana Serra in some of the leading parts.
Göran Forsling


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