January 22, 2004: Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Conducted by Richard Hickox; Original Production by John Schlesinger; directed by Richard Gregson. Opera in three acts, with a prologue and epilogue. Running time: 3 hours 50 minutes, including two twenty-minute intermissions. Stalls circle, Seat A 24. £92.00

It is remarkable how used one can get to viewing a four-hour theatrical event with one’s head at nearly a right angle to one’s body: such was my angle of vision. Like Vivie Warren’s handshake, the after-effect wears off presently. It was well worth the minor strain. This is a quite wonderful production, and it grows on one in a surprising way, as does Offenbach’s music. At first the thing seemed a little dull and slow-paced, and the Covent Garden audience excessively polite and somewhat cold. But the music gets better as it goes, and the singing follows suit; and the deeper we get into the retrospective tales narrated — and, to be precise, actually reenacted — by Hoffmann, the more we come under the spell of the music and the wonderful structural idea that lies behind it.

That idea is that we have a frame story, within which we have a succession of three analogous stories, which all finally amount to the same story and then, in the epilogue, are seconded and reiterated by the conclusion of the frame story. In the frame, we are in a Parisian tavern with Hoffmann, who is still in love with a singer he has broken off with but who wants him back and has sent him the key to her dressing room. She is singing in the opera house nearby, in a production of Don Giovanni, and Hoffmann and his drinking pals are whiling the time away. Hoffmann is encouraged to tell the stories of the three women he has fallen in love with, but has lost in each case. Thus, the prologue, followed by three long acts, each devoted to one of the three women Hoffmann has loved and lost: Olympia, the mechanical lady of the scientist Spalangani’s invention (Act I); Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan (Act II); and Antonia, whose father has fled with her to Munich to rescue her from an undesired match with Hoffmann (Act III). In each case, Hoffmann’s bête noire and ultimate nemesis, the villainous figure who thwarts his desires or steals or kills his love, becomes the predictable but none­the­less fascinating blocking character who makes the drama what it is. After we have seen Hoffmann sadly, tragically lose the ladies he has given his heart away to, we return to the tavern, in the epilogue. Here, Hoffmann becomes so drunk that he falls into a stupor, does not recognize Stella, the Italian prima donna who has come for him after finishing the opera next door. The unscrupulous politician Lindorf, the first of four incarnations taken on by Hofmann’s nemesis, tips his hat to her, and takes her away. But Hoffmann’s muse, the muse of poetry, who like an unrequited lover has disguised herself as his companion, Nicklaus, and has followed him everywhere like a cautionary presence, now comes to his rescue; inspires him with a desire for the immortality that only the art of poetry can confirm; and moves him to begin writing his way to deathless fame as the curtain falls.

So: what pulls the opera together thematically is the ultra-romantic notion that it is the very passion for vibrant life that the best and most imaginative of us feel in ourselves that ironically leads us to excess and, finally, self-destruction — unless this morbid process is countermanded by the higher claims of art and the opportunity for personal realization and fulfillment that it offers. If that happens, the resulting artistic success validates and perhaps even sanctifies what has otherwise been a meaningless waste of life.

Highly questionable as a philosophy of life, that view nonetheless, if placed in the propitious hands (vile metaphor, but I did write it) of a perhaps desperate but talented composer, results in an opera as attractive and satisfying as Tales of Hoffmann. Offenbach just barely lived long enough to complete it — and appar­ently the last part had to be orchestrated by someone else. No matter. It’s finally a very coherent work, even if some parts of it have been cobbled together by others. It affords much opportunity for wonderful, though not especially, brav­ura singing; and the duet of the barcarole is one of the loveliest pieces in the operatic repertoire of the nineteenth century. This staging by the film director (now deceased) John Schlesinger, re-mounted for the current season by Richard Gregson, takes full advantage — and then some — of the large, deep stage of Covent Garden and its marvelous scenic resources. The costumes, by Maria Björnson (also, unhappily, now deceased) are brilliant: lavish, vibrantly colorful, and characteristic; wigs, for servants and also for Olympia, are stunningly good. Perhaps the best single set of costumes is for Hoffmann’s nemesis Lindorf, who in the course of the opera becomes Coppélius (Act I), Dappertutto the evil musician (Act II), Miracle, a doctor exceptionally good at killing his patients and getting away with it (a chilling parallel to the British doctor who killed well over 200 of his patients and, last week, killed himself by hanging himself with his bedsheets in a British prison) (Act III), and finally Lindorf once again, in the Epilogue.

Lindorf is sung by a towering figure of a man, the Jamaican basso Willard W. White, a truly commanding presence on the stage. Hoffmann is sung by the young Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón, whose character and whose voice take an unusual amount of time to really warm to his task. But the results are worth waiting for: Villazón is still going strong at the curtain of the Epilogue, where Offenbach has given him some glorious and challenging closing music. What is very unusual is that there is no single soprano to complement these two contin­uing musical roles over the length of the opera. Instead, each of the three acts affords a role for a separate soprano, requiring formidable vocal talents and at the same time affording these singers the unaccustomed luxury of not having to save themselves or pace themselves over an entire evening of bravura singing, unlike your Violettas, Mimis, Toscas, and sundry other doomed heroines. Instead, they give their all in the space of an hour or less: Ekaterina Siurina, the Olympia; Jennifer Larmore, the Giulietta; and Elena Kelessidi, the Antonia. These characters are extremely well differentiated, and the vocal requirements are also difficult in each case. The Olympia role is a coloratura; the Giulietta more of a mezzo; and the Antonia less of one and more of a straightforward lyric soprano (terms fail me here).

And so, an abundance of riches, even more so than in your average Bohème or Carmen. I blanched, back at the end of December, when I booked this very expensive ticket; but I’m very glad now that I decided to splurge on it and pay enough to have a really clear, close view of the performance — sore neck and back, or no.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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