This recording merits a mixed reception, thanks in no small part to the convoluted circumstances of its production - look at the recording dates and locations - lucidly outlined in Richard Osborne’s PDF booklet note. In the early 1960s André Cluytens was keen to update his 1948 recording while, in London, Walter Legge was dreaming up a golden array of singers for the opera including, allegedly, Callas as Olympia! Before it could come to pass, Legge resigned from EMI while remaining the producer of all of his wife’s recordings: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who had been contracted to sing Giulietta. So Legge produced Act 2 while a different team of engineers looked after the other acts. Meanwhile Victoria de los Angeles, singing Antonia, was returning to form after giving birth to her first child. Due to a prior engagement, she was unable to complete the recording in Paris in the limited time available so the orchestral part of Antonia’s Romance was recorded in Paris while the vocal part was taken down in Barcelona. Still with me? By the time of recording Legge’s original concept had been so far diluted that we are really left with an entirely different concept featuring multiple sopranos and baritones – and a tenor Nicklausse! – where in other circumstances one would be preferable. Taking all this into account it’s not really surprising that the finished product should be so variable.
The finest thing about the set is the three heroines, and that in spite of the strange circumstances surrounding the recording. Gianna d’Angelo, not a singer I knew beyond Serafin’s Bohème, shows off fantastic coloratura in Olympia’s aria and Victoria de los Angeles achieves purity of similar quality but entirely different character in Antonia’s scenes – her death is especially moving, coming after an ecstatic scene with the portrait. When the set was first released Schwarzkopf’s Giulietta was criticised for being too German and she certainly sounds silky and knowing, but that’s entirely appropriate for the sultry Venetian courtesan and I found her very convincing. It is with the men that the problems come. Nicolai Gedda just did not convince me as Hoffmann. True, he can hit all the notes, but the role is just not right for his fach. His voice is neither heroic nor romantically charged and he sounds uncomfortable even when the tessitura is not particularly challenging. It is off-putting and unnecessary to have three different baritones. Ernest Blanc sings Scintille diamant well, but Ghiuselev sounds rough and London, while sinister, does not achieve much beauty. Furthermore I just couldn’t get used to a tenor Nicklausse, especially as when the Muse appears she is played by the conventional mezzo. Sénéchal is, as ever, a fantastic character tenor and the chorus romp away convincingly in Luther’s tavern, but no-one buys a Hoffmann based on these things. Most seriously, perhaps, Cluytens’ conducting is four-square and heavy. Seldom does he convey the bounce or wonder inherent in Offenbach’s great score: the entr’acte between the first two scenes sounds like it is trying to beat you over the head and the Barcarolle carries little allure. Furthermore, it’s hard to believe that this is a French orchestra, so blunt and devoid of charm is the playing.
No: there are other places to go for a great Hoffmann, and the greatest of all is still Bonynge’s 1972 Decca recording starring Domingo, Sutherland in all four soprano roles and Bacquier as all four baritones. Bonynge chooses a different version of the score to Cluytens and he opts for spoken dialogue instead of recitative, but he manages to draw the very best out of all his performers, striking operatic gold at every turn. This is still the CD to go for, and if you want a DVD then I still have never seen a better one than Domingo’s 1981 performance in John Schlesinger’s Covent Garden production. The production is a classic, still serving the Royal Opera today, and the leads are superb. Incidentally, Georges Prêtre conducts the same version of the score as Cluytens does here but he does so much more satisfactorily. Despite the budget price this EMI release hasn’t improved with age.
This hasn’t improved with age… see Full Review