One of the staples of the Royal Opera's repertory, John Schlesinger's production of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann is now twenty-eight years old. Last revived in 2004 for the ROH debut of Rolando Villazón, who caused a stir in the title role, the Mexican tenor remains one of the main reasons to see the current run of performances.
Some strong singing, the lavishness of the staging and Antonio Pappano's velveteen conducting, however, are not quite enough to compensate for the opera's rather sprawling nature. Offenbach's fantasy opera is in three acts, a prologue and an epilogue, and describes the plight of the poet Hoffmann. When called on by the company in the tavern to entertain them, he tells them stories of his three unhappy past loves, each of whom also embodies an aspect of his current love, the opera singer Stella. Olympia is a mechanical doll whom Hoffmann believes to be real until he learns the truth; Giulietta is a courtesan who steals Hoffmann's shadow; and Antonia is a consumptive who quickly dies after meeting him. The women also reflect aspects of Hoffmann's own character flaws – artifice, lust, self-destruction – and several other characters pop up in different guises through the opera, such as the Music of Poetry, who becomes Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse, Councillor Lindorf, who brings about the downfall of the three women in the stories and ultimately walks off with Stella, and Andrès, who is Stella's private secretary but also becomes the servant in each of the tales.
The piece is quite beautifully constructed and makes for an intriguing night at the theatre. However, the opera's troubled history – a posthumous premiere was ruthless with the text and the autograph sources were lost until recently – means that Offenbach's true intentions can never be fully understood. I can't help but wonder if he would have tightened the drama, given the opportunity: the point of each segment of the opera is actually rather simple, if quite powerful, and I'm sure Schubert could have told the same story in five neat stanzas. Two quite long intervals always make Schlesinger's ROH production seem even more drawn-out: 30 and 25 minutes of break surround the 36-minute-long second act.
Then, too, it's swings and roundabouts with the content of Schlesinger's staging. Revival director Christopher Cowell has reproduced the Personenregie of the original Domingo performances faithfully, right down to Hoffmann's drunken collapse on the staircase during the prologue. The use of the space is imaginative: William Dudley's sets are the stuff of dreams, sumptuously detailed and evocative of the locations of the opera, and allow the full chorus a free flow around the stage, usually on two levels. The evocations of the doll, the gondolas and the inn set are also magnificent. However, at times the representation of the opera's grotesque nature borders on the pantomimic and becomes unwittingly risible. Lindorf's various guises seem silly rather than sinister, and the use of smoke and stock theatrical gestures belongs to a very old-fashioned style of production that at times taxes one's patience. For me, the Antonia act is more interesting than the other two, perhaps because she is a more rounded, human character, in contrast to Olympia's blandly showy coloratura and the empty seductiveness of Giulietta. But it's a long time coming, and whether we learn anything new by the end of the evening remains to be seen.
The Royal Opera has fielded more lavish casts for this production, not least the original which had Domingo, Lloyd, Geraint Evans, Serra, Baltsa and Cotrubas. However, there are several notable performances here. Rolando Villazón received a deservedly rapturous ovation at the final curtain, having once more conquered a phenomenally taxing role. He is temperamentally well suited to the character of Hoffmann, who is volatile, nervous, obsessive, passionate – qualities which Villazón brings to the fore. Vocally, too, he is white-hot with energy in a role that requires almost Wagnerian stamina.
Gidon Saks was rather a disappointment for me as the Four Villains. As happened on the only other time I've heard him perform live, he sang with lots of power initially and then tired long before the end. He was also too obvious a villain for my taste, but Kristine Jepson was a superbly confident Nicklausse, excellent in her relationship with Villazón. Ekaterina Lekhina was a fearless Olympia, almost immaculate in her pitching of the high notes, though I've heard the part done more excitingly, and Christine Rice was an interesting Giulietta, more intelligent and motivated than the average; it was good to hear her voice in Romantic repertoire. Katie Van Kooten, formerly a Royal Opera Jette Parker Young Artist, is perfect as the consumptive heroine, Antonia, even if the latter stages of the act, when the line is high and the dynamic loud, tax her vocally. Graham Clark revels in parts like the Four Servants, and could have been born to play them; Matthew Rose was a sensitive Crespel; and Robin Leggate was excellent as Spalanzani.
Conducting the performance in memory of the late Richard Hickox, who died in Wales after a recording session on Sunday, Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano conducted a lithe, sensitive account of the score. Always responsive to the needs of his singers, Pappano kept down the volume where necessary, yet always sculpted the music beautifully; the intermezzo between the third act and the prologue was exquisitely played. Perhaps a little more energy and forward-looking momentum would have helped the overall effect, but it can be a difficult score to sell to an audience.
On the whole then, a solid but only sporadically exciting revival.
Photos: Bill Cooper