Richard Jones often likes to take a risk or two, which means when his productions work they can be exceptional (the edgy Hansel and Gretel for WNO); but when they fail they can be excruciating (the nervous-laughter inducing Macbeth for Glyndebourne). Tales of Hoffmann, though, could almost have been written with him in mind. With this rambling mess of an opera, Offenbach was attempting something in the grand style but, although he covered his back by calling it an ‘opéra fantastique’, all too often it retreats back to the catchy tunes and oom-pah accompaniment of his metier, opéra comique. In this new co-production with ENO, first seen in Munich at the start of the season and at the Coliseum in February, Jones’s ability to tread that uncomfortable line between terror and humour does the seemingly impossible and makes sense of Offenbach’s incoherent score.
With his productions brimming with ideas, costumes and, famously, wallpapers, Jones can hardly be accused of simplifying his subject matter. And yet a number of clever framing devices impart a unity and clarity to the work. Through a boozy haze, Hoffmann recounts the tales of his three lost loves to his school chums in his study. In turn, the study is transformed into a garish toy factory, where his first girlfriend, the doll Olympia, was manufactured; a dark sick-room for the consumptive soprano Antonia; and finally a dentist’s surgery – except it is reflections, not teeth, which girlfriend number three, Giulietta, is extracting. Hoffmann’s smoking provides the basis of another unifying strategy: before each act, smoke rings puff out of a giant pipe on the scene-change screen that rise to spell out the name of each of the girls. This was one of the lighting effects by Mimi Jordan Sherin that provoked a few ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ in the audience.
The Olympia act – the silliest, and consequently best known, of the three – was ostensibly played for laughs. In one of the most delightful moments of the evening, coloratura soprano Brenda Rae squeezed as much vocal as well as physical comedy out of the set as possible, as her doll’s machinery malfunctioned and then broke down altogether. But this was counterpoised by a number of unsettling features: cross dressing, adults dressed as children acting like adults with learning difficulties, and the continual presence of a representative three of the school friends, who watch proceedings without apparent interest or engagement.
Contrasting with this was the Antonia act – musically and dramatically the most sophisticated and consequently the least well known – which started off with apparent serious intent. A pasty, sickly Olga Mykytenko paced herself beautifully over the act, having to sing of her loneliness, her joy at seeing her old lover Hoffmann again and finally, tricked by the evil Dr Miracle, to sing herself to death. But Jones cannot help leavening this tragedy with humour. During Offenbach’s gypsy-inflected music, test tubes become castanets in Miracle’s hands. When Giulietta goes to sing from her newly liberated songbooks, previously kept under lock and key by her father for her own protection, Miracle’s face, bathed in a sodium yellow glow, emerges from the notes to goad her on. And, in her deluded state she puts on a gramophone record and thinks the voice coming from the horn is emanating from beyond the grave.
The dark bass of Kevin Conners brought a cold menace to all the villains in the opera: Coppelius in the Olympia act and then Giulietta’s master, the reflection-collector Dappertutto, as well as Miracle. Anna Virovlansky, in a see-through crimson dress, imbued her Giulietta with an irresistible sex-appeal: teasingly sliding up and down to her notes. No one needs to be told how good Rolando Villazón is as Hoffmann, as he made his name in England and cemented his international reputation with the demanding role at Covent Garden in 2004. Any suspicion that he might have been fatigued at the beginning of the Giulietta act was quickly forgotten with his all-out passionate assault on ‘Ah Dieu, de quelle ivresse’ a few minutes later.
The undisputed star of the show, though, was Angela Brower as Hoffmann’s muse. In this production – dressed in the same schoolboy outfit and sporting the same trademark hair and eyebrows as Villazón – Niklaus is Hoffmann’s hallucinated alter ego, born of too much drink. As well as rivalling the other three sopranos in her own big arias, she guided the audience through the maze of the plot, explaining through gesture when not singing.
It took the orchestra most of the prologue to get going. They were dragging badly behind the singers, and it seemed that either conductor Marc Piollet’s beat wasn’t clear or the leader was taking matters into his own hands and trying to hurry things along. Whatever it was, the problem had gone away by the time we got to the first act proper and the magical moments were carried off with a real sense of enchantment. I’m not sure either about this new ‘authentic’ version of Offenbach’s score edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck: there was enough deadwood in the old version, and this just seems to add more. And whatever Offenbach’s intentions, surely Antonia’s act, having the best music and being the most tragic, ought to be last.
In the end, though, this was a highly enjoyable, not to mention successful, version of this problematic piece.
By Marc Brooks