Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach is one of my guilty pleasures and discovering that one of my favourite directors, Robert Carsen, had staged it made me run to the music library to pick up the dvd.
I say guilty pleasure since this opera is written by one of the big operetta composers and I as a rule dislike operetta. Or maybe I just HATE Johann Strauß!
Ahem…The first time I saw Hoffmann was in Rome five years ago and I went solely to see one of my heroes, Ruggero Raimondi, in the four baddie parts. The staging and the other singers turned out to be pretty marvellous so it was one of those evenings you don’t forget easily. I own a dvd version with Raimondi. Not the same and not as good, but ok. I mean a staging putting the über hammershark Raimondi in this position has to have some advantages:
Heh…it just never gets old.
Robert Carsen lets the stories take place in a theatre during and after a performance of Don Giovanni (it is in the libretto that Stella is singing in that particular opera..). The Prologue takes place in the bar of the opera house, the story of Olympia is on stage just after curtain fall with all the singers as chorus, Antonia walks the orchestra pit (not the actual pit…) and her ghost mother appears up on stage, Giulietta is seated in the auditorium (not the actual auditorium…) on rows that move like old fashioned theatre waves from side to side. I think it works pretty well with this intricate system of chinese boxes and I like the ever changing reflections and view points. Hoffmann keeps talking about himself and the same love story from different angles and I agree that it is all so colourful and perverse that a theatre is no bad backdrop. Besides it allows Carsen and his stage designer Michael Levine do some wonderfully lavish interiors and costumes. But I’m actually more concerned with the acting which is superb. Neil Shicoff successfully portrays the tormented Hoffmann and manages to change from broken alcoholic into young fool, mature fiancé, depraved lover, and back into alcoholic. I am quite amazed by his talent as an actor. As a singer his does very well too in this large part.
Here is a clip in which Shicoff shows he has a comical talent too. It is only part of the song about the dwarf Kleinzach just to let you get an idea. If you want to see the whole aria the Paris Opera has it on their home page with Rolando Villazón. Not bad either but very different.
I love his expression when he reaches for the cigarette with his mouth.
Bryn Terfel plays the villains. It is strange but even though I have been loving this singer for years I have never seen him on stage (not in real life nor on dvd). My only experience with his stage appearance is a concert with him and Cecilia Bartoli from Glyndebourne in which he is either sweet or humorous. So to see him as the bad guys the first time I see him in costume was if not surprising then at least interesting. Of course he does very well both music and acting wise. Oh, how I would love to see him do Mephisto in Gounod’s Faust!
Here is a clip from the beginning of the opera where Lindorf sings about his own ugly personality. I love what they did with the lighting. Just as he sings about his eyes the light penetrates one of his eyeballs from an oblique angle so that it lights up uncannily in the dark. Eyes and gazing are main themes of the opera so this is an extremely elegant feature. I think it is a bit hard to see it on this low quality clip – just another reason for getting the dvd. Then you can also enjoy the light catched by the smoke.
The other singers (most important: Susanne Mentzner, Nicklausse/La Muse; Desirée Rancatore, Olympia; Ruth Ann Swenson, Antonia; Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Giulietta) do fantastically too. The Muse/Nicklausse gets much more music than I’m used to, but this is an opera that comes in different versions as Offenbach died before he could finish it. I don’t think the extra music added much to the story since I prefer a firm focus on Hoffmann and the villains, but never mind, Susanne Mentzner did a great job.
This is one of the best stagings I have seen of the opera, but it loses some energy towards the end. The whole Giulietta act lacks force and the famous Barcarolle was actually quite dull. But watch it for Shicoff alone and then add Terfel and you’re more than all right. This is great, and Carsen still stands very high in my favour.