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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, opera in 5 Acts (165:00]
John Osborn (Hoffmann)
Irene Roberts (Muse/Nicklausse)
Nina Minasyan (Olympia)
Christine Rice (Giulietta)
Ermonela Jaho (Antonia)
Erwin Schrott (Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, Dapertutto)
Director, Tobias Kratzer; Sets and costumes, Rainer Sellmaier
Chorus of Dutch National Opera
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Rizzi
rec. live, 2018, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam
Picture NTSC, 16:9, 1080i; Sound PCM Stereo, DTS-HD 5.1
Reviewed in surround sound
Sung in French, subtitles; Korean, English, German, French, Japanese. Booklet essay and plot summary in English, French and German.
C MAJOR 752904 Blu-ray [165 mins]

This is a daring and insightful updating of Offenbach’s final masterpiece by Tobias Kratzer for Dutch National Opera. Rainer Sellmaier’s staging of what the composer styled, with some justice, an Opéra fantastique, is spectacular, dividing the very large Amsterdam stage into a series of rooms, three layers deep, like a huge doll’s house minus its front elevation. At the centre of this structure is Hoffman’s apartment, where he works as a photographer, and where his friends congregate when carousing in Act 1. Its white walls and tall windows don’t even hint at the libretto’s “Luther’s tavern, Nuremberg” and the substances that Hoffman and his friends indulge in are not all legal ones. Hoffman’s Muse is just another friend, and she seems never to transform into Nicklausse. This apartment is at the centre symbolically as well physically, as Kratzer says he aimed to make the frame of the tale – the start and finish of Hoffman’s narration – into its centre.

The events of the three tales (acts two to four), mostly take place in other rooms around the central apartment, which also contains some contributions from the Muse and Hoffman which would in a ‘normal’ staging occur in those other locations. Thus when he is duetting with Antonia, they remain apart. But they move to the appropriate location for the Venice act. This shifting of locale and perspective has the viewer wondering how far we are witnessing Hoffman’s narrated past reality, and how far just his latest fantasy. Are these separate rooms the different chambers of Hoffman’s mind? That blurring of fantasy and reality is of course central to E.T.A. Hoffman’s tales. We realise more than usual that all his three lovers are victims of puppet masters, not just the doll Olympia. The contemporary setting is not too rigorous. Hoffman’s apartment has cassette tapes, but the disembodied voice of Antonia’s mother is revealed as coming from the horn of a vintage gramophone. Illogical in real life maybe but quite normal in a dream or fantasy. The dark side of the work, with its three doomed heroines, its diabolical lead baritone with his four sinister incarnations, and the obsessive aspect of Hoffman’s own nature, is brought into focus in a way that would be difficult in a traditional Third Empire staging.

The cast could hardly be bettered in this work today. John Osborn copes very well with the high tessitura of his role, which in turn reflects the strain that his passionate recollections place on him. The Muse is mezzo Irene Roberts, who looks, acts, and sings like the permanent sidekick who hopes her beloved Hoffman will notice her eventually, and maybe drink a bit less, in a very touching performance. Erwin Schrott is a vocally very strong Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto, and he manages to differentiate them well enough, even if the histrionics of Miracle almost suggest he needs a moustache to twirl while snarling.

The three lovers are three different sopranos, despite the original intention to have them all sung by one singer. Olympia of Nina Minasyan sings her coloratura expertly, and with a touch of warmth that suggest the automaton has a soul. Ermonela Jaho sings Antonia with her usual total dramatic commitment to any role she undertakes, and brings an affecting vulnerability to her plight. In the Venice act Christine Rice is Giulietta, and she is as fine as she was at Covent Garden in 2016 – there she had a gondola, here she has junkies.

The Antonia story comes as Act Three, with Venice as Act Four, rather than the other way round. There is less recitative than one sometimes hears and Dapertutto loses his blustery “Scintille, diamant”, but both aria and recitatives had little or no Offenbach in them anyway. The Rotterdam Philharmonic play splendidly well for Carlo Rizzi who shows great feeling for the score’s many evocative details. The blu-ray surround sound is very good too, even if the lower register is a bit strong in the mix. (The subwoofer was so often called into action that one family member asked if I was reviewing a disc of music for solo bass drum). The filming shows us the full stage picture just often enough to suggest that the scale of the spectacle meant not many seats apart from the top price centre of the stalls can have had a good view of all the action. So the film might serve the production even better than being there. But if it is revived with most of this cast, I will be applying for a ticket. Meantime we are fortunate to have this highly recommendable recording. Unless you are allergic to this sort of production – and I am not always a fan by any means – you should investigate, which you can do by looking at a fairly representative trailer on the C major website.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review (DVD): Barney Rayfield

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