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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Opera in three acts with Prologue and Epilogue (1882)
Hoffmann: Vittorio Grigòlo (tenor), Olympia: Sofia Fomina (soprano), Giuletta: Christine Rice (soprano), Antonia: Sonya Yoncheva (soprano), Nicklausse: Kate Lindsey (mezzo soprano), Lindorf: Dapertutto, Coppelius and Dr Miracle: Thomas Hampson (baritone), Spalazini: Christophe Mortagne (tenor), Stella: Susan Cordon (soprano), Crespel: Eric Halfvarson (bass), Schlémil: Yuriy Yurchuk (baritone), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London / Evelino Pidò
Stage director, John Schlesinger. Set designer William Dudley. Costume Designer, Maria Björnson. Video Director, Jonathan Haswell.
rec. November 15, 2016
Presented in DTS.5.1. LPCM Stereo. NTSC 16:9. Colour.
Subtitles in French (original language), English, German, and Italian. Notes and synopsis in English.
SONY 88985376619 [2 DVDs: 197 mins]

As opera staging has moved into producer concept and so called Regietheater, the likes of this production, which involves elaborate sets that relate to the story, will become more and more rare. This is very obvious from the new productions in Europe and even at London’s Royal Opera House, as there comes the turn to replace well-proven and trusted productions. In 2017 it was the turn of a renowned production of La Boheme by John Copley that dated from 1974. Widely admired for its realism, detail and as a portrayal of the composer’s intentions, it has been replaced by a very different staging. This production of The Tales of Hoffmann dates from 1980. It was the first opera production by the renowned film director John Schlesinger. The original cast featured Placido Domingo in the title role alongside names such as Agnes Baltsa, Luciana Serra, Ileana Cotrubaș and Geraint Evans in the cast list under the baton of Georges Prêtre. That was filmed, issued on a Warner Classics DVD (0630 19392-2, 4:3 aspect, 150 min.) and reissued on NVC Arts. The film quality is rather dated compared to this Sony issue. After eight revivals, the one filmed here is scheduled to be the last! The next staging will be new. If some recent replacements at Covent Garden – such as Norma, Lucia Di Lamermoor and La Boheme are examples – then I suggest one looks fondly at the likes of this production. It largely represents what the composer wrote about and intended inasfar as scholarship allows (see the appendix). The staging is opulent and the detail wholly realistic in its representation of the libretto. The work was the ultimate dream of the composer.

Such virtues as those I extol above are increasingly rare. It is especially gratifying that the powers that be at Covent Garden have surrounded this final revival with a sympathetic conductor and a singing cast, who, while not perfect, are very good indeed. To pit Vittorio Grigòlo against Placido Domingo in the eponymous role is some challenge for the relatively young tenor. I say without equivocation that he fits the bill. He sings and acts the role very well, whether when in desperation at loosing his shadow, when being a little over the top with alcohol, or generally as a pursuer of the love of a woman of his dreams. Of Hoffman’s lady loves, Sofia Fomina is outstanding in both her acting as a mechanical doll with spot on coloratura, as the first to enchant him. As the courtesan Giuletta, Christine Rice is sumptuous of tone and seductive as any temptress. Sonya Yoncheva brings outstanding beauty of tone and vocal colour to the role of Antonia. Also of the female cast, but in the trouser role of Nicklausse, Hoffman’s muse, Kate Lindsey has the beating of the lot in acted poise as well as singing. She is a talent to watch for and savour.

Of the men in the cast, first consideration must be of American baritone Thomas Hampson who takes on all four roles of Hoffmann’s nemeses. I regret to say that I find his normally mellifluous high baritone not really suited to the vocal demands, although his acted assumption is better. Eric Halfvarson as Crespel has not the ideal steadiness, too many Grand Inquisitors perhaps? Yuriy Yurchuk scores well in the small role of Schlémil. As a whole the cast, male and female, work as a team to the benefit of the complexities of the production. I would like to think that the production’s replacement would match its virtues but recent examples leave me in some doubt. In the meantime, at the price of £11.99 for the Sony set, I recommend the reader to enjoy the here and now rather than wait and hope. An added virtue of the Sony presentation, unlike the Opus Arte issues of Covent Garden performances, for example, is that the booklet, in English only, gives all Chapter introductory lines, cast involved and timings. Twenty seven chapters cover the Prologue and the first two acts on disc one. Disc two has act three and the epilogue in sixteen chapters, including curtain calls and credits. Eighteen minutes of bonus features include an Introduction to the opera as a whole, to each act separately and to the music and the production.

Robert J Farr

Appendix
Offenbach and Les Contes d’Hoffmann
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 him to study in Paris. There in turn he scraped a living as a ‘session’ cellist (in today’s idiom). At the time of the Paris 1855 World Exhibition, frustrated by the inability to get his compositions performed, Jacques opened the miniscule 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 1870-1871 and with it the fall of Napoleon III followed by the demise of the Second Empire. Offenbach, with his Germanic guttural French felt his days in France were over. He went to America, still harbouring a wish to write a true opera that would be accepted and performed at the Paris Opera Comique.

On Offenbach’s return to Paris, another composer generously ceded him the libretto of Hoffmann. 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 Hoffman’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 trouser role. Financial necessity involved Offenbach producing other work during the period of composition, so progress was slow and aggravated by the composer’s declining health. At his death he had only orchestrated the Prologue and Act 1. The remainder of the work, in piano score, was orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud (he who set the dialogue of Carmen as sung recitative). The work, presented at the Opera Comique on February 10, 1881, ran for over 100 performances in that first season.

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; others used the Oeser critical edition which involved a change in the sequence of the acts. No information that I can discern in the accompanying leaflet, or on the box, gives any details of the edition used in this production. I assume later research by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck is not involved.

 




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