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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Opera in three acts with Prologue and Epilogue (1882) edition by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck
Hoffmann: John Osborn (tenor), Olympia: Nina Minasyan (soprano), Giuletta: Christine Rice (soprano), Antonia: Ermonela Jaho (soprano), La Muse: Irene Roberts (mezzo soprano), Lindorf: Dapertutto, Coppelius and Dr Miracle: Erwin Schrott (bass-baritone), Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio: Sunnyboy Dladla, Spalanzani: Rodolphe Briand (tenor), Luther/Crespel: Paul Gay (bass), Schlémil: François Lis (baritone), La Voix de la Tombe: Eva Kroon (mezzo),
Chorus of Dutch National Opera,
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Rizzi
Stage director, Tobias Kratzer Set and Costume Designer, Rainer Sellmaier. Video Director, Misjel Vermeiren.
rec. 2018
Sound. DTS.5.1. PCM Stereo.Picture. NTSC 16:9. Colour.
Subtitles in French (original language), English, German, French, Korean and Japanese. Notes and synopsis in English.
C MAJOR 752808 DVD [2 discs: 165 mins]

New releases of this masterpiece are always welcome but, alas, this latest Les contes d'Hoffmann still makes us none the wiser about what Offenbach actually wanted when he died midway through rehearsals, leaving only the piano score and two acts orchestrated.

It is a very singular opera, taking the real life author and composer ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822) and making him the protagonist in three of his own short stories. Bookending these are a prologue and epilogue set in a Munich tavern where Hoffmann, now a washed up drunk, regales students with the tales in which each woman he falls for is either murdered or taken from him by a malign force. Hoffmann is a captivating loser, almost unique in opera, and has attracted some of the finest tenors like Placido Domingo, Joseph Calleja, Rolando Villazón and Léopold Simoneau. It is considered good form to have the four 'baddies' sung by the same bass baritone, whereas the speaking part of Stella, the coloratura role of the mechanical doll, Olympia, the dramatic Venetian courtesan, Giulietta and the fragile, lyrical Antonia are a hard ask for any one soprano. Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and more recently Georgia Jarman took them on but most recordings cast the women individually and for some time, many assumed this was Offenbach's intention.

Most of us who fell for this opera as hard as I did, fell for a corrupt edition. Up until the 1970s Les contes d'Hoffmann was a fast paced, delirious, macabre and haunting opera of doomed love. What we actually loved was a patchwork only some of which was by Offenbach. The lengthy spoken dialogue had all been jettisoned for recitatives mainly written by Ernest Guiraud, cuts were made to the lengthy Giulietta act, and two of the most celebrated numbers were slotted in as late as 1904. This wonderful monster is known as the Choudens Edition and it is an effective bit of theatre. The rest of the opera got lost or burnt in opera house fires. From the 1960s until even the late 1990s some of Offenbach's original intentions came to light, which confuse more than they explain.

What we can agree on is that we were told the tales in the wrong order of Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia. Hoffmann's collapse into murder and prostitution makes so much more sense when Giulietta is placed last. It is also her act which contains the most discrepancies and missing music. The 1980s saw the rise of the Oeser edition which reinstated the dialogue, jettisoned some of the non-Offenbach material and saw Giulietta accidentally poisoned by her pimp, Dappertutto. Then, more music was unearthed and the Oeser version has been discredited in favour of the work done by Jean Christophe Keck and Michael Kaye.

As far as I can see, there has not been a studio recording of Les contes d'Hoffmann since the 1996 Kent Nagano set on Erato, a rather stiff but critically important document of much of Keck and Kaye's research. Since then still more material has surfaced in libraries and collections but as the recording industry imploded all we have had subsequently is the odd live DVD where the possibility of alternative tracks and appendixes just isn't possible. We still await a recording of the latest Schott score, complete and with spoken dialogue. Unfortunately, this Amsterdam taping only prolongs the wait further.

This set has a lot of good things musically and it is, if nothing else, an interesting take on the latest scholarship but it is best enjoyed with the picture off. Carlo Rizzi is clearly using Michael Kaye's Schott edition, so at least this means we have the Tales in the correct order and, although regrettable, he is historically right to omit Dappertutto's diamond aria and the lovely septet. As usual, we get the orchestrated recitatives joining everything, a few passages of which are by Offenbach; this is the better choice in the theatre compared to the acres of spoken dialogue that can turn this punchy work into a long evening.

Rizzi is in many ways the strongest element of this DVD. He handles the long score with a light touch. Tempi are brisk but not so rushed as to strangle Offenbach's many delightful dance rhythms and peppy orchestration. He understands too that Hoffmann is neither typical Offenbach froth nor Massenet-style decadence. The mercurial fusion of melancholy as well as energy is well handled and choral singing is similarly tight. Where he comes unstuck is in his editorial choices: why no second verse for Hoffmann's drinking song after the barcarole? Given the edition he was using it seems also perverse to deny Hoffmann and Giulietta their repeat in the shadow stealing duet. Other nips and tucks don't follow any edition either, and by the time the dead Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta reconvene with Stella in the epilogue and sing together, you start to realise that this is a musicological free-for-all. Much like Tobias Kratzer's staging.

To be blunt, the production is pretty awful with occasional glimpse of a good back of the fag packet idea. For all the modern, conceptual clichés on display here (coke sniffing, casual clothes, lank, long hair for the men and “Look kids, Hoffmann’s not a poet he's a photographer!” desperation) the worst aspect is the basic practical white elephant of the set. The vast, wide Amsterdam stage has been divided into three floors of solid cubicles. Hoffmann resides in his modern studio flat on top, occasionally punching through a wall to spy on Olympia or else he walks down hidden stairs. Periods seem to be fluid. Hoffmann is a modern-day millennial, but Olympia seems to be from the fin de siècle music halls and Antonia's world is very 1920s in aesthetic. The shadowy, magical world of Venetian prostitution is given a steam-punk layer which fits. But, taken together, nothing gels and basic eye contact or actorly engagement just isn't possible in the circumstances. The cast is, at best, dutiful to the restrictions imposed upon them. The most interesting of Kratzer's flights of fancy is maintaining the role of the Muse throughout. What is usually the trouser role of Hoffmann's best friend Nicklause - who then morphs into a feminine depiction of a poetic muse - now becomes his rather resigned and beautiful photographer girlfriend. Convincing too is the skin-crawlingly creepy portrayal of Spalanzani, Olympia's 'father', a real Frankenstein sex offender. Giulietta having a mermaid Doppelgänger isn't a bad idea either, but it is just that all this clutter remains just that: ideas.

Many will sneer that I am being too literal and uptight to give in to these concepts and conceits. Perhaps, but just look at the cast. They only haphazardly buy into what Kratzer is striving for. As Hoffmann, John Osborn's bored teenager shtick is listlessly conveyed and he is a generic, clumsy actor. Revisionist opera stagings count for nothing when the acting is so 1950s. Arms outstretched, eye contact minimal. Opera acting hasn't moved with the directors.

Musically, though, this performance is strong. John Osborn is on good form vocally, diction clear in that clean rather dry high tenor of his. His 'buddy' Nicklause, reimagined as his girlfriend, is gorgeously sung by Irene Roberts, whose name is new to me. Her French is cloudy and it is a shame her decent acting is hampered by being stuck in the upstairs cubicle all the time, but she is a talent to watch. Erwin Schrott has fun as all four villains and he is a good enough actor to differentiate each role. He is best as Dr Miracle and Dapertutto. He is far too broad as a doddery Copelius and too suave and good looking as Lindorf. I just can't warm to his generalised, rather woolly vocalism.

Hoffmann's women are generally excellent. Nina Minasyan is an unusually lyrical, human doll, nothing dazzling but she has the notes and responds well to the idea that she is an abused human rather than automaton. The biggest name here is Ermonela Jaho and her Antonia is predictably affecting. Jaho is a terrific actor and uses the built-in frailty of her flexible, individual voice to great effect. Her death from slitting her throat with the broken shellac record of her mother's singing is the one quirk of Kratzer's that really works.

More controversial is the casting of mezzo Christine Rice. Although Giulietta was traditionally cast with sopranos possessed of a creamy lower register, the unearthed Kaye material has shown that Giulietta's lines in the reconstructed gambling scene reach the heights of Olympia's music. The score must have surely been transposed for Rice as she sounds and looks fabulous as the hugely unreliable courtesan. Other cast members do their best: the terrific character tenor, Sunnyboy Dladla makes the most of his four evil sidekicks and François Lis makes a fully-fledged character of the drug-addled Schlemil.

Love it or loathe it (I'm the latter), the production of vast blocked-off chambers does not film well and what could have been the seedy dinginess of Spalanzani's back street music hall is indecipherable murk, even on DVD. The most brilliant editor couldn't keep up with the business and multiple chambers on stage and so a lot is missing. The sound is generally well balanced with minimal audience intrusion; maybe they didn't love it either. There are no extras, and the rather pointless booklet notes give you a brief synopsis amidst the PR puff of how great the production is. We are knee deep in DVDs and Blu-rays of Les Contes d'Hoffmann and I recommend you venture elsewhere.

Butchered, reimagined and sung in English it may be, but Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's 1951 film, recently restored for Blu-ray in a long lost 128 minute cut (10 minutes are still missing) is still one of the only productions to capture that elusive, macabre yet gorgeous, fever dream flavour that we feel Offenbach was striving for. Cramming the stage with weird things doesn't cut it, as this Amsterdam production shows. For the best French sung, live production on DVD we still haven't bettered John Schlesinger's Covent Garden production, available on its 1981 première with Placido Domingo, Ileana Cotrubas and Geraint Evans or on its final revival with Vittorio Grigolo, Thomas Hampson and Christine Rice again. The sets are enchanting, the acting decent and Schlesinger conveys the sadness and mothballing of Hoffmann's romantic failures better than others. But you are still lumbered with the botched Choudens score and so will need the audio Erato set to give you the most editorial options.

Given the insurmountable textual problems and alternatives, insertions and general guesswork about stitching this work together, most of us tend to accumulate sets and DVDs of this infuriating opera and will spend days compiling our fantasy edition. This Amsterdam DVD just asks more questions than it answers. Musically there's a lot to like even if some of Rizzi's solutions certainly are not Offenbach's - or Keck's, or Kaye's. The melodies still come flowing out thick and fast, but for us Hoffmann fanatics this new release just muddies the waters even more.
Barnaby Rayfield

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