Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 15 February 2012 4 stars

Tales of Hoffmann at ENOCo-produced with the Bavarian State Opera and recently performed by that company, English National Opera now stages Richard Jones's take on Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. Without doubt, the staging is entertaining and also thought provoking. However, perhaps some of Jones's messages could have been left to the audience's imagination and, consequently, some arguably over the top images – or deliberately camp entertainment? – would have become defunct.

In Act One, which contains Hoffmann's first tale (or, depending on one's interpretation, perhaps Hoffmann's first dream) Hoffmann falls in love with Olympia unaware that she is only a doll. Offenbach clearly tells us that things are not always as they seem. Jones in turn makes the ladies of the chorus dress up as if they were children while Cochenille, the doll-maker Spalanzani's man servant, dresses (and moves) as a woman (that is, as a cross-dressing man). Jones might have intended to emphasize the make-belief element of this tale but if nothing is as it seems, then Hoffmann's discovery that Olympia is only a doll cannot be such a shock. I am also uncertain (and slightly uncomfortable) about Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse dressed as a schoolboy throughout the three tales of the opera. Is he representing the schoolboy E.T. A. Hoffmann's young cousin, as quoted in the excellent programme notes, from Hoffmann's Kreisleriana? Or is this costume for the mezzo-soprano, admittedly playing the part of a man, only adding to the fun of an evening's entertainment?   

On the other hand, another of Jones' symbol  – the imagery of a pipe (once appearing over a very well played, exposed horn ensemble, possibly as if referring to the hornpipe ) – cannot be accused of going for a laugh. Indeed, on the contrary, it may go over the heads of those who regard the three tales as poetic tales rather than pipe-dreams of a burnt-out drunken poet. Several of Jones' details are brilliant. The violin band in Act Two – in fact a group of adult actors and a child – looked real: indeed, it was their unusually perfect unison movements which made me question their authenticity. The evil Dr Miracle poking his head through the music on the piano, while seducing Antonia to sing herself to death, is a witty reminder of how music can be used for destruction. 

Some of Jones' details are hard to comprehend. During the whole of the opera three silent men are constantly on stage, as if they were an audience of three. Is this a reference to a theatre in the theatre? So are Hoffmann's tales dreams, poetic tales or theatrical pretences? As for the meaning of the possible symbol of the gorilla evidently taking a major part and thus distracting from the flow of Act Three, I would not even like to guess.

Offenbach died (in 1880) before he was able to finish his Tales of Hoffmann, which was then completed by Ernest Guiraud. Nevertheless, what Offenbach left for us is a great opera of an experienced opera composer. Regardless what edition one encounters – ENO now uses the Kaye and Keck version – the music is overwhelming, witty and a master class in various styles (as presented in the three tales placed into three different environments).

ENO fields a truly astonishing cast of principal singers for this production. Indeed, it would be difficult to envisage a better team. Georgia Jarman is breathtaking as the coloratura soprano Olympia (Act One) and she makes an amazing transformation to deliver the fragile but determined Antonia (Act Two). Jarman also excels in her remaining two parts that is as Giulietta in Act Three (although looking less comfortable as a prostitute than as a doll or a romantic heroine of the previous two acts) and Stella who may (or may not) be the whole of the (three) parts. According to the libretto Stella is a singer (rather than a tale or a dream) but perhaps those three personas represent different layers of a woman and Jarman shows all these aspects. Barry Banks sings effortlessly and convincingly the part(s) of the romantic but also burnt-out poet Hoffmann. Clive Bayley is mesmerising as all those unsavoury characters (Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dapertutto) and Christine Rice brings her customary secure and musical presence to the part of Nicklausse. Mention must also be made of Iain Paton, who portrays Spalanzani the doll-maker with measured mischief and pathos. Simon Butteriss is nothing less than virtuoso as Frantz (and he does justice to his other three roles too).

Conductor Antony Walker left a mixed impression but the negatives might well change during the current run of performances. The problems concern some untidy ensemble work and a few possibly slightly underplayed passages (such as the orchestral Intermezzo to Act One). On the other hand, Walker's tempi and dynamics are well judged all way through and the finales to Act Two and Three were truly magnificent.  

Here is an entertaining and thought-provoking production of a masterpiece. Don't miss it.

By Agnes Kory

Photo: Chris Christodoulou