Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
The Tales of Hoffmann [172:00]
Hoffmann - Roberto Alagna (tenor)
Olympia - Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Giulietta - Sumi Jo (soprano)
Antonia - Leontina Vaduva (soprano)
Nicklausse/Muse - Catherine Dubosc (mezzo)
Lindorf/Coppélius/Dapertutto/Dr Miracle - José van Dam (baritone)
Spalanzani - Michel Sénéchal (tenor)
Schlemil - Ludovic Tézier (baritone)
Crespel - Gabriel Bacquier (bass)
Andrès/Cochenille/Pitichinaccio/Frantz - Gilles Ragon (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of Opéra National de Lyon/Kent Nagano
rec. Opéra de Lyon, 1994, 1995, 1996
ERATO OPERA COLLECTION 2564 67266-5 [3 CDs: 72:47 + 48:40 + 50:46] 

Worst thing first: as with all the re-releases in Erato’s Opera Collection the packaging for this set is pretty awful. There is a fairly full synopsis, cued to the tracks on the CDs, but only a web-link to the libretto in French (with no English translation). Nor is there is a word about the edition of the text used, so important for any recording of this work. It’s a special shame in this case because the original packaging of this recording was so lovely; a well designed front cover and a thick booklet with essays, text and translations. Still, looking on the bright side, this allows a good recording to return to the catalogue at budget price, and it’s well worth hearing as it will provide any fan of the opera with a lot of pleasure.
Hoffmann is a difficult opera to get right, and music-lovers will forever argue about the best edition of the text to use, let alone whether you should have spoken dialogue or sung recitative. It has been recorded fairly frequently but, for me, the best version by a country mile is still Bonynge’s Decca CD with Sutherland, Domingo and Bacquier. However, Nagano’s version has a lot going for it, and it stands alongside Bonynge’s as a worthy alternative, as it brings a different edition of the text and, unlike Bonynge’s, gives us the sung recitatives rather than the spoken dialogue. At its centre stands the Hoffmann of Roberto Alagna, an interpretation captured when this singer was at his absolute best. His Hoffmann is young, vigorous and exhilarating, even aggressive at times. His moments of raw excitement are superb - just listen to his drinking song at the start of the Giulietta act (here placed third) - but he doesn’t lose lyricism in the great love scenes. His love duet with Antonia, in particular, is outstanding, quivering with ardour and full of surging energy. His seduction by Giulietta also feels full of energy while carrying an air of languor and abandon. I loved the way he seemed to give himself to the role with complete abandon, embracing its extremes in a way that throws caution to the wind, and always remaining utterly musical throughout. I will return to this version again and again just to hear his superb singing. He is matched by an equally interesting set of villains from van Dam, but these villains are distinguished by the sheer beauty with which they are brought to life. There is not a trace of a snarl or a hint of ugliness in van Dam’s great portrayals; instead he brings out the lyrical aspects of their characterisation so that they are never cardboard cut-outs of evil: it is easy to see, for example, how this silky Dr Miracle manages to inveigle his way into the Crepsel house.
The three heroines are sung by different sopranos, each of which brings a very distinctive colour to the role. Olympia was a signature role for the young Natalie Dessay and her coloratura is outstanding, especially in the upper ranges, though she sounds unmistakably brittle at times. Vaduva’s Antonio is attractive and vulnerable at the same time, her turtle dove solo meltingly beautiful, while her death scene is very moving. Sumi Jo’s Giulietta is both a seductress and a fire-eater. She also uses her coloratura to astounding effect, almost distractingly brilliant in Giulietta’s first aria, but finds some reserves of allure with which to woo Hoffmann later on. The other major “woman” is, of course, the Muse/Nicklausse of Dubosc, whose rich, fairly throaty mezzo, convinces as the companion without ever threatening to blend too much with the other female character. The lesser roles are never less than capably sung and, while there are better character tenors around than Gilles Ragon, his different incarnations sound good enough. It’s good to have old friends like Michel Sénéchal and Ludovic Tezier lurking somewhere down the cast list too.
In many ways, though, Nagano is as much the hero of this set as Alagna. He conducts with an eye for energy, invigorating the proceedings with the dramatic flair of an action-man, which won’t be to everyone’s taste - moments like the Barcarolle seem rushed and undervalued - but I always found him enjoyable, and the way the orchestra play for him it is clear that they loved working with him. In fact, in spite of the star turns, this set (just about) maintains the air of an ensemble piece where everyone works together to serve the music first.
So while it isn’t perfect I still found this set immensely enjoyable and, after Bonynge, it’s now, for me, a very clear second choice for this opera. If you’re irrefutably wedded to the sung recitative, it might feature even higher for you.
Simon Thompson
Not perfect but still immensely enjoyable.