Rolando Villazón’s comebacks are almost becoming as much of an operatic fixture as Nellie Melba’s farewells. On October 31 he returned to Munich for his local debut as Offenbach’s Hoffmann, the ‘signature’ roIe of his early international career, perhaps, since his triumph at Covent Garden in 2004. Since then, at least two vocal crises and periods of rest have compromised his lustre in big, demanding, Romantic parts such as this, although his Hoffmann remains a recklessly soul-bearing neurotic on a roller-coaster ride to disillusionment and possibly oblivion. Richard Jones’s new production, coming to English National Opera this month, certainly capitalizes on Villazón’s 120-per-cent histrionic intensity. There is a horrible fascination in watching while this young man’s romantic dreams unravel, leaving him a pitiful emotional wreck, whom his beloved Stella is unable to arouse from his drunken stupor.
At the nationaltheater Villazón was bravo-ed to the rafters by his ever-vocal caravanserai of cheerleaders, but there was disagreement among the international critics assembled to hear if the Mexican tenor was still up to the vocal demands of Hoffmann. Having heard his Hoffmann twice before, at Covent Garden in 2004 and 2009, I would suggest that he has found a way of singing the part, often sensitively, but his quiet, high singing is now close to a croon, and there is a general caution about his approach to ringing high notes, which I don’t recall from the 2004 performances. The good news is that there has been no falling-off from his 2009 standard and he seems to have conquered the intonation problems that bedevilled his Royal Opera Don Carlos in 2008. That said, I was more conscious than ever of the vocal effort Hoffmann now costs him. He might be well advised to sing it sparingly in future, and in carefully selected houses.
Although Villazón was the nominal star, it was Diana Damrau, playing all four of Hoffmann’s loves for the first time in her career, who enjoyed the evening’s biggest triumph. She is, of course, already a darling of the Munich audience, especially for her Zerbinetta and Aminta (in Die schweigsame Frau). The Hoffmann ladies pose her different challenges. Olympia’s pyrotechnics belong to the high coloratura Fach she appears to be abandoning in favour of lyric and bel canto parts, but Antonia and Giulietta are usually associated with very different voice-types, at least in the standard Choudens edition traditionally favoured by big houses. Munich opted for an edition devised by Jones and the conductor, Constantinos Carydis, based on the scholarly editions of Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck with the order of the acts as Offenbach intended—Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta—and retaining Dapertutto’s ‘Scintille diamant’ while dropping the dubious sextet. This may not solve the Hoffmann ‘problem’ to complete satisfaction—that is probably a pipe dream anyway—but at least Jones gave the opera a unifying dramatic structure. Giles Cadle’s single set—Hoffmann’s bedsit circa 1960—got design makeovers for Spalanzani’s ‘workshop’ (a kitschy toytown in which Olympia is got up to look like a cross between Disney’s Cinderella and Dusty Springfield), Rat Crespel’s house in Munich (Antonia’s mother, billed as the ‘Voice from the grave’ and lushly sung by Okka von der Damerau, was represented by a framed gold disc emblazoned with a photograph of Ingrid Bjoner, a nice local touch), and Giulietta’s surreal domain (which lacks any hint of Venice). The set for this scene is dominated by a huge shaving mirror that ‘steals’ the souls of Giulietta’s victims by silvering their faces and leaving an imprint, which Dapertutto peels off and stores in scientific specimen jars—a typical Jones idea, both creepy and witty.
Damrau dazzled as Olympia, and looked wonderfully tarty and brittle as Giulietta. Those used to a more voluptuous, lyrical timbre might have been less than moved by her teenage Antonia, but she couldn’t be faulted as an actress. It’s hard to think of another soprano today who could replicate her achievement at this level. Less compelling was John Relyea’s decently sung but undifferentiated villains (he was a replacement for the originally announced René Pape), while Angela Brower, dressed as a mini-Hoffmann in shorts, sang a winning if not entirely secure Nicklausse. The house character-tenor stalwarts Kevin Conners (the four servants) and Ulrich Ress (Spalanzani) supplied vivid cameos. Carydis conducted efficiently but without any magic or special flair for the idiom. At curtain down he was lightly booed, as were Jones and his team—the British director has not been forgiven by elements of the Munich audience for his make-your-own-Wahnfried Lohengrin two summers ago—but most of the audience seemed deliriously happy. Many German critics deemed the production ‘conventional’, which by Regietheater standards is possibly true. But this Hoffmann is classic Jones, and I predict an unqualified success when it comes to the Coliseum.