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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann,
Opéra fantastique in five acts (1880) [164.42]
Olympia, Giulietta – Kerstin Avemo
Antonia, Giulietta – Mandy Fredrich
La Muse, Nicklausse, La Voix de la tombe – Rachel Frenkel
Hoffmann – Daniel Johansson
Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, Dapertutto, Luther – Michael Volle
Spalanzani – Bengt-Ola Morgny
Crespel – Ketil Hugaas
Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz – Christophe Mortagne
Nathanaël – Hoël Troadec
Hermann – Josef Kovačič
Wilhelm – Petr Svoboda
Stella (non singing part) – Pär (Pelle) Karlsson
Prague Philharmonic Choir, Lukáš Vasilek (chorus master)
Wiener Symphoniker/Johannes Debus
Stage Director – Stefan Herheim
rec. live 21, 23 July 2015 Festspielhaus, Bregenz Festival, Austria.
C MAJOR 735604 Blu-ray [174.44]

During a recent interview, German baritone Michael Volle talked passionately to me about the new Stefan Herheim production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Bregenz Festival in 2015. Having watched this Blu-ray of the staging in which Volle stars, I can fully understand his wholehearted enthusiasm for this entertaining spectacle.

Offenbach died before completing the score. It was orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud, who provided a performing version for its première. Consequently nothing is definitive, as throughout the opera’s history productions have employed all manner of versions with different alterations and expansions. Routine is not a word that sits easily with this opera, which centers around the protagonist Hoffman loving four women. Offenbach felt the four soprano roles should be sung by a single soprano (not the case here) while the four villains should be played by the same baritone. Deception by the main protagonists is commonplace and there is no shortage of supernatural activity. For this Bregenz performance, director Herheim and musical director Johannes Debus have collaborated to create their own riveting adaptation of a score fertile in ideas that just fizz with energy.

For my money, Norwegian Herheim is the most stimulating and perceptive exponent of Regietheater working in opera today. Detailed and often complex, his innovative visualisations are invariably entertaining, perpetually making me look at things from different perspectives. As mentioned by Volle, there is so much going on that Herheim’s staging sometimes leaves behind a feeling that not everything has been fully understood or something has been missed. I did wonder, for example, how many of the audience would know that the score has several passages for solo cello and the characters dressed as Offenbach carry a cello case, all because the composer Offenbach was a professional cellist himself.

Staged in the Bregenz Festspielhaus and not outside on the floating stage, Herheim and his design team have successfully presented Offenbach’s masterpiece by merging, what I can best describe, as a lewd and near-decadent burlesque from 1920/30s Paris or Berlin with a gleaming contemporary cabaret and drag show. Christof Hetzer’s set is dominated by a great staircase reminiscent of a Hollywood dance extravaganza from the days when troupes of high-kicking showgirls would be masterminded by the likes of director and choreographer Busby Berkeley.

Designed by Esther Bialas, a critical and recurrent feature is the cross-dressing by almost all the soloists and all the cast. The transvestism component and the lewdness of the production are seen right from the opening scene. Stella, a non-speaking role, played by stuntman Pelle Karlsson in drag, falls down drunk from the top of the staircase to loud gasps from the audience. Lindorf, sitting amongst the audience, shouts out bawdily “enough of this homo crap” (at least that is what the English subtitles say) and then makes his way to the stage. Stella tears off a flap at the bottom of the female Muse’s corset to reveal a swinging penis. Another instance of vulgarity is the framed image of female genitalia projected onto a large rear screen. Lindorf, who is annoying the group of Hoffman look-alikes, has his trousers pulled down and his bare bottom smacked.

Lining the staircase, watching the fall, is the chorus, an important part of this staging. The women chorus wear black sparkly tailcoats, black trousers, white tie, black top hat and hold silver topped canes. The male chorus are dressed the same as the women, but in place of wearing trousers they wear black knickers, suspenders and fishnets. Instead of top hats, half of the men have curly ginger wigs and the other half have vivid red wigs. Wine bottles attached to the side of the men’s wigs can be pulled off to reveal inkwells and quill pens. In different scenes, to imitate the dress and appearance of Hoffman, the male chorus are dressed in shiny black tailcoats, grey and black striped trousers and black wavy wigs with receding hair-line.

Many of the soloists wear the same clothing. For example, the female leads Olympia, Nicklausse and Antonia, and also Stella, all dress with the same style of cream corsets with black suspenders and fishnets, sparking long dresses and long blonde wigs. Consequently, on occasions it’s difficult to tell who is who. At times Volle’s four villains, and also Hoffmann, wear the same evening dress and underwear as the female principals. Christophe Mortagne plays all three characters Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz dressed as a dead ringer for the composer Offenbach and sometimes wearing that characteristic deep fur collar seen in the well known photograph. Herheim and Bialas certainly understand the tremendous impact which expressive dressing has on the human psyche.

Swedish soprano Kerstin Avemo plays both Olympia and the dual role of Giulietta. A fine actress, Avemo provides an ideal amount of humour as the singing clockwork doll. Her highlight is Olympia’s amusing aria Les oiseaux dans la charmille, known as the ‘Doll Song’, to harp and flute accompaniment. It is delivered with assurance, displaying her fluid, creamy voice and effective coloratura.

Made for the part of the hero Hoffmann, Swedish tenor Daniel Johansson is in sterling form. It is hard to recognise Johansson as the same person I saw perform the role of Don José so moderately in Axel Kohler’s Carmen at Dresden in 2016. Confident and uninhibited, Johansson throws himself into the challenging role of the lovesick poet. Striking is the tenor’s strong and lyrical projection, with little suggestion of strain. Johansson communicates a gripping impact to the Act Two Ils se sont éloignés! Enfin! as Olympia leaves her wheelchair and sits across his knee. Impressive, too, is the heartfelt emotion given to the passionate Act Four aria O Dieu! de quelle ivresse whilst holding Antonia in his arms.

Singing Antonia and Giulietta is German soprano Mandy Fredrich, who I sense feels a touch self-conscious in the revealing underwear. Quite lovely, from Act Three, is Antonia’s aria Elle a fui, la tourterelle, where she pines for her lost love as she sits holding a model head of Hoffmann. Fredrich’s fluid, creamy tone is most attractive, although improved diction wouldn’t go amiss.

Stealing the show in the role of the four villains Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle and Dapertutto plus inn-keeper Luther, is Michael Volle. He completely buys into Herheim’s realisation. When Volle is around everyone takes full notice, such is his acting, innate stage presence and commanding voice. Surmounting a steep challenge, Volle’s rich full tone is in admirable condition right from early in Act One with Lindorf’s aria Voyons!… Dans les rôles d'amoureux langoureux where he intercepts a letter from Stella to Hoffmann. I could continue through his several arias but suffice to say that his total contribution all evening is magnificent.

Rachel Frenkel takes the roles of La Muse, Nicklausse and La Voix de la tombe, which are extremely difficult to differentiate. The striking Israeli mezzo-soprano brings an attractive rich lustre to her most convincing voice. Frenkel’s glorious highlights are the Muse’s couplets from Act One, La vérité, dit-on, sortait d'un puits, where she seems to own the stage, and the lavish Act Two romance Vois sous l'archet frémissant - C'est l'amour vainqueur, in which she sings to Hoffmann of music and love as she descends the staircase, violin in hand.

German born Johannes Debus conducts the Wiener Symphoniker, who excel with playing of focus and considerable vitality. Crucially, too, the Prague Philharmonic Choir under chorus master Lukáš Vasilek is in quite splendid voice throughout. No problems whatsoever with the choice of stereo and surround sound options. Video director Felix Breisach captures the action with skill, providing a range of shots that have remarkably few close-ups, yet everything works well. Generally, the scenes are rather dimly lit. However, the film has good clarity with the colours standing out well.

It’s a real shame there are no on-screen bonus features included, such as interviews with principal soloists and with Herheim and his design team. In the booklet there is a helpful track listing and a valuable essay ‘Vital music theatre’ by Frederik Hanssen that, in the absence of a directorial note, explains something of Herheim’s concept. There is virtually no detail about the genesis of Offenbach’s unfinished score, or the critical reception and performance history of the opera, which is an important aspect for some.

This is a production where one senses a group of performers totally at one with the director’s vision. Stefan Herheim and his designers draw you in to this eminently creative and dazzlingly compelling production of Offenbach’s operatic masterpiece superbly performed by an impressive team of soloists.

Michael Cookson

Other recording details
Set Design – Christof Hetzer
Costume Design – Esther Bialas
Lighting Design – Phoenix (Andreas Hofer)
Video Designers – fettFilm (Momme Hinrichs, Torge Møller)
Dramaturge – Olaf A. Schmitt
Video and TV director – Felix Breisach
Sound formats:
a) Stereo LPCM 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0ch 48kHz
Subtitle Languages: French (original language), English, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
Resolution 1080i – Filmed in High Definition from an HD source



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