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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann - Opera in three acts with Prologue and Epilogue (1882)
Hoffmann - Michael Spyres (tenor); Olympia - Kathleen Kim (soprano); Giulietta - Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano); Antonia - Natalie Dessay (soprano); Nicklausse - Michèle Losier (mezzo); Lindorf, Dapertutto, Coppelius, Dr Miracle - Laurent Naouri (bass-baritone); Spalazini - Manel Esteve Madrid (tenor); Nathanael - Airam Hernández (tenor); Stella - Susan cordon (soprano); Crespel - Carlos Chausson (bass); Hermann/Schlémil - Isaac Galán (baritone)
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Grand Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona/Stéphane Denève
Stage director and costume designer: Laurent Pelly
Set designer: Chantal Thomas
New libretto version and dramaturg: Agathe Mélinand after the researched edition by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck
A new co-production Gran Teatre del Liceu in association with San Francisco Opera and Opéra National de Lyon
rec. Grand Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona, February 2013
Video Director: Charles Carcopino
Sound format: Dolby 5.1 surround. Stereo LPCM; Video: NTSC. Aspect 16:9
Subtitles: French (original language), English, Spanish, Catalan, German, Italian
No booklet essay, synopsis or track-listing
ERATO DVD 2564 636914 [2 DVDs: 183:00]

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 where he in turn scraped a living as a ‘session’, in today’s idiom, cellist. At the time of the Paris 1855 World Exhibition, 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 and with it the fall of Napoleon III and the demise of the Second Empire. Offenbach, with his Germanic guttural French felt his day in France was over and he went to America still harbouring a wish to write a true opera that would be accepted and performed at the Paris Opéra Comique.

On Offenbach’s return to Paris, another composer generously ceded Offenbach the Hoffmann libretto. 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 Hoffmann’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 I. 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 one hundred 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. Many performances have been based on the traditional Choudens edition with sung recitative with others using the Oeser critical edition which involved a change in the sequence of the acts. The present recording is based on the research of Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck with important amendments and cuts by dramaturg Agathe Mélinand. I gather, without the benefit of a score, or copies of the scholarship, or of any booklet information or track-listing, that this involves the omission of Giulietta’s seduction aria, L’amour, lui dit la belle, vos yeux était fermées. On the plus side we are able to hear most of Offenbach’s original final scene.

Given the failure to provide any basic written information, I provide the following summary and sequence of the acts:-

Prologue, DVD 1. CHs. 3-8.
Act 1. Olympia Act. DVD 1. CHs. 9-15
Act 2. Antonia act. DVD 2. CHs. 1-9
Act 3. Giulietta act. DVD 2. CHs. 10-14
Epilogue. DVD 2 CHs.15-18

Pelly’s staging is unorthodox, rather colourless and mechanical, involving the movement of large flats, staircases and doorways. It is a pity, in my view, that Pelly chooses to show how Antonia is manipulated in her seeming flying moments rather than leaving us to wonder. After all the work is not meant to be realistic but more the drunken Hoffmann’s dreams in his stupor. Likewise the emergence of his muse, Nicklausse, as a woman in the epilogue is perverse (CH.18). The filming not merely lacks colour, but varies from excessive close-ups to showing largely irrelevant details.

As to the singing, this was billed as being Natalie Dessay’s departure from the operatic stage, singing all three roles of Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta. As it was she sang only Antonia. Given her vocal state, exemplified by a thin-sounding and not wholly steady introductory aria to act two, this was a wise decision. As ever her characterisation, clarity of diction and acting was wholly committed and she received rapturous applause from the audience. Her husband, Laurent Naouri, taking the roles of Hoffmann’s four nemeses. was masterful in his acted portrayal. Vocally not quite ideally sonorous, he was also guilty of some minor unsteadiness. The best singing of the principals came from Kathleen Kim as Olympia, fearless in her singing of the high notes and wholly convincing in her acted interpretation of a mechanical doll. As the third of Hoffmann’s ill-chosen loves, Tatiana Pavlovskaya was variable and not wholly at home in the French language. Francophone Michèle Losier had no problem with the language or style and his acted portrayal and singing was a notable strength of the production. Michael Spyres, who I associate more with Rossini than francophone opera, sings well, albeit showing some sign of tiredness at the end. Nothing wrong either with his French style or linguistic inflection, illustrated in his singing of Kleinsach (DVD1 CH.6). Along with the style, he manages the vocal demands and creates a believable character. The minor roles are well sung and acted in their different ways whilst on the rostrum Stéphane Denève is wholly in sympathy with the idiom. His pacing of the well known Barcarolle at the start of act three (CH.10) is masterful. What he made of the staging is nobody’s guess, or maybe his hair got in the way of his seeing too much of it.

Robert J Farr