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English National Opera at the London Coliseum, February 16

 

The Tales of Hoffmann

 

Rodney Milnes

 

A long, long evening, three-and-a-half hours in the theatre, never for a minute boring but in the end curiously unsatisfying. The best thing was the singing—as fine an all-round cast as any in my experience. The American soprano Georgia Jarman dominated the evening in the triple female role, with spot-on, witty coloratura as Olympia, warmth of tone and appealing lyricism as Antonia, a vibrant stage presence as Giulietta—she has little to sing in this version, and almost brought off a rather poor (new?) 6/8 number (Offenbach on a very bad day). Hers was a real star turn.

 

Barry Banks sang the title role (it’s a deceptively Big Sing) with apparent ease—clear-toned, precise, tireless. This is as much a staging point in his career as his recent Edgardo at the Coliseum. That he was able to make so little of the character was not his fault. The same is true of Clive Bayley as the multiple villains, but at this second performance of the run he was also in marvellous vocal form, appropriately granite of tone and clearing the hurdle of ‘Scintille diamant’ without turning a hair. Who he was supposed to be was another matter: Councillor Lindorf was not sufficiently established in the Prologue. Christine Rice brought her customary beauty of sound and dramatic know-how to Nicklausse, made her extra number in the Antonia act seem worthwhile—which it is, musically if not dramaturgically—but couldn’t quite focus on her double-role’s function. We all know that the paranoid are sometimes persecuted, but Hoffmann is perhaps adequately persecuted by Lindorf without needing someone else to thwart his love life. There was another virtuoso performance in the servants’ roles by Simon Butteriss; he brought off Frantz’s number brilliantly, which isn’t easy given its dramatic context, and was helped by a brisk speed. He played Cochenille in smart drag with a fag hanging out of his mouth—simply hilarious. But, like Lindorf, Andres was not established as the source of all these characters in the Prologue.

 

Graeme Danby was a strong Crespel and Luther, and Iain Paton made Spalanzani anything but a bit part. Catherine Young might have been even better as Antonia’s mother without amplification, and Tom Fackrell was a noticeable Schlemil. All delivered Tim Hopkins’s singable new translation crisply (the surtitles, as usual, redundant). The chorus was on good form, and the conductor Antony Walker made you think about some of the tempos he chose, and usually you started to agree with him. Ensemble between pit and stage was not always sufficiently precise.

 

Obviously a cast as expert as this under a director as wildly inventive as Richard Jones delivered vivid performances, but they were strangely abstract. The focus was far too loose—save for Giles Cadle‘s clever permanent set—and for a number of interconnected reasons. The through-composed edition by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck is, I suppose, musicologically impeccable. But in the final days of his life Offenbach was preparing—and attending rehearsals for—an opéra comique, turning his already composed recitatives into spoken dialogue. Much of Kaye-Keck might have fitted the earlier plan for a full-scale romantic opera; however, the recitatives, whoever they may be by, are almost all of them terrible, holding up the action with their leaden progress. In over half a century of Hoffmann sampling, I have always found editions with spoken dialogue far more satisfying theatrically (and far shorter)—I am thinking of Colin Graham’s Coliseum production of 1970, or Anthony Besch’s for Opera North ten years later, not to mention the very persuasive text for Bonynge’s Decca recording.

 

It’s a question of musico-dramatic focus. It is now generally accepted that Carmen works better with dialogue, but not yet that Faust does, and it is tragic that ENO should, for its latest production of Gounod’s opera, have dumped the Edmund Tracey edition used in Ian Judge’s earlier, unforgettable staging. And Richard Jones must know this with the experience of his breakthrough Mignon at Wexford in 1986. Thomas’s opera with recitatives lumbers along, with dialogue it trips. Faust is a bitter-sweet romantic tale, perfect for opéra comique, overblown and pretentious when turned into Grand Opera. I feel the same about Hoffmann.

 

Oddly, fatally to my mind, Jones chose to present Hoffmann as a drunk from the start. Drunks are not particularly interesting: half an hour in a saloon bar is usually quite enough; three-and-a-half hours in the theatre is a great deal too much. A cheerful chap who is driven to drink by amorous frustration and his deeply equivocal Muse is more interesting, though the idea that you have to be drunk and celibate to be a good writer is not one I find convincing.

 

The ENO programme was no help, fuller of E.T.A. Hoffmann than of Offenbach, who was inspired by the Barbier-Carré play, not the historical figure. There was only a single sentence in the synopsis describing the Prologue and Olympia—simply inadequate. Anyone unfamiliar with the work would have had no idea what was going on, what was the state of the Hoffmann-Stella affair or non-affair, why there was a quote from Don Giovanni. As already suggested, Andres and Lindorf were not established as the sources of all that followed. The three students who inspire the tales were there, but un-named in the cast list. They returned, silently to watch the later acts. The Muse was presented from the start as a schoolboy with muddy knees—ahem. In the Colin Graham version, a handsome, healthy Nicklausse at one point said airily to Hoffmann ‘oh well, time for bed’; but we had better not go down that path, though I enjoyed a big tease when writing a programme note for Salzburg in 1982 pointing in that direction (the Hoffmann was Domingo).

 

Of course there were striking elements in Jones’s direction—there always are—his handling of the doll for one, and the effect of the rose-tinted spectacles, which he didn’t follow through consistently. I was less sure of King Kong watching the Antonia act from the floats, and joining in Giulietta’s entourage. And as of now the Giulietta act is a mess. In sum, the Jones Hoffmann is too abstract, too loose of focus, and far too long. Perhaps Kaye-Keck could be persuaded to turn their minds to an ‘authentic’ opéra comique edition.

 

Cabbells 2012 B & C
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine