Sunday, 13 November 2016

Schlesinger’s naughty but nice Hoffman bids farewell

Lush – and a little bit naughty
Les Contes d’Hoffman is one of those examples of opera as a lush, romantic, shambolic 19th-century nonsense that somehow – arguably, against all the odds – makes for an entirely enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Offenbach’s music is light as a feather – and full of twiddly bits: I cannot be alone in hearing it and being reminded of the comment from the emperor in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus of a piece of Mozart’s music as having “too many notes”.

That, of course, would put him in rather elevated company.

The French composer had only sketched the opera as a whole and orchestrated the prologue and first act before he died: it has been worked and reworked so many times since that it’s difficult to say what is the original – all of which can add to a sense of chaos.

Based on three stories by Prussian Romantic, ETA Hoffman, it uses a heavily-fictionalised version of Hoffman himself to give the tales some sort of cohesion.

Starting with a prelude in a tavern, a drunken Hoffman is moaning about his lack of luck in affairs off the heart.

Then come the three acts proper that give us the stories of his disastrous amors. We begin with the beautiful Olympia, who turns out to be an automaton – was I alone in musing as to whether this begat the scene in Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, when Potts and Truly Scrumptious dress up as dolls to distract the baron?

After the humiliation of being derided for falling for a doll, act two takes us to Venice, where Hoffman finds himself caught up in the sensual shenanigans of the courtesan, Giullietta, who agrees to steal his reflection for Dappertutto, a collector of human spirits.

As it all goes a tad Faustian – and part of what makes it so enjoyable is a darkness and sexiness – Hoffman once more realises that he’s the victim of infatuation.

In the third act, our protagonist tracks down a former love, Antonia, who has been hidden from him by her father, who fears that an affair would prove fatal.

Thomas Hampson as Dappertutto
Having inherited an angelic voice from her mother, but not knowing that every note she sings brings death ever closer, Antonia feels that the greatest expression of her love for Hoffman is through song.

Hoffman tries to make her promise not to sing any more, but the sinister Doctor Miracle, ostensibly a legitimate medical practitioner, uses magic to make her sing until she collapses and dies.

And then, in a epilogue, we find ourselves back in the tavern, where Hoffman’s close friend Nicklausse is revealed as the Muse, who actually only wants to win him for poetry and not love.

It’s all a reminder of just how wafer-thin opera can be on such a score – though that should never be taken as meaning that it has no value beyond being a sort of entertainment bonbon.

It does also serve to remind one just how great was the leap forward that Wagner took in terms of creating psychodramas where the music had to fit a real complexity of human emotion.

But this final revival of John Schlesinger’s 1980 production of Les Contes d’Hoffman is certainly fun. It’s all very lush with delightful sets and costumes – nothing here that attempts to foist some sort of contemporary philosophical idea onto it.

It scores in having Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo as Hoffman, who compensates for a lack of subtlety in approach by going at it as you might expect from a one-time a Formula 3 driver (until injury intervened) – an approach that also helps to soften the impact of making the would-be poet a rather unsympathetic figure at the start, possessed by bitterness rather than suggesting vulnerability.

So it bristles with energy and drive.

In some productions – you can, for example, find Joan Sutherland doing so on disc – one soprano has played all the three love interests, plus Stella the tavern singer.

Here, Sofia Fomina as Olympia takes the chance provided by Offenbach’s twiddly bits to display her own prodigious vocal talents, while Christine Rice as Giuletta and Sonya Yoncheva as Antonia also turn in admirable performances.

But special mention should go to Kate Lindsay for her Nicklausse/Muse – it’s a wonderful mezzo-soprano role – and to lyric baritone Thomas Hampson in four roles, but most enjoyably as the wonderfully pantomime villains, Dappertutto and Dr Miracle.

Musically, it could do with conductor Evelino Pidò lifting the tempo a tad in places, although in the entr’acte before the epilogue, when the orchestra gets to play the famous barcarolle, it is superbly judged and glorious in its lilting beauty.

So, another perfectly enjoyable evening at Covent Garden.

Les Contes d’Hoffman from the Royal Opera House is live in cinemas this Tuesday, 15 November, and plays in repertory until 3 December.

To find out more, visit

• I am now listening to Deccas 1986 recording, with Placid Domingo, Joan Sutherland, and LOrchestre de la Suisse Romande, under the baton of Richard Bonynge. 

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