Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann is the single presentation of the Opéra National de Lyon in their Japanese tour. Quite understandably, if one has in mind that Laurent Pelly’s production involves ever-changing scenery and many special effects, as one can see in the DVD with Natalie Dessay and Michael Spyres. It is a refreshingly dramaturgically unobtrusive staging that concentrates on atmosphere and Personenregie, making good use of the acting skills of a talented cast. As usual, the Giulietta-act turns out less inspired than usual, but some editorial choices share some of the blame here.
The idea of having one soprano and one bass-baritone for all of Hoffmann’s romantic interests and enemies is never bump-free, but I would say that today the sum was greater than the parts. From an objective point-of-view, Patrizia Ciofi’s soprano, in its present condition, is not ideally suited for any of these roles: her coloratura was rather cautious and the high notes a bit tense as Olympia; Antonia could have benefited from a bit more volume and Giulietta’s lower tessitura made for awkward results. And yet her musicianship, good diction, dramatic involvement and sheer imagination made all this seem almost irrelevant: the shadow dynamic effects in Olympia’s aria were exquisitely handled, Antonia’s testing high-lying phrases were dispatched with abandon and sensitivity… Truth be said, Giulietta was just not a good idea, but rather something like once-you’re-singing-all-the-rest… Michèle Losier, who got to sing Vois sous l’archet frémissant, for instance, is actually better cast as Nicklausse/The Muse, but far less inspiring, her all-purpose tonal quality not appealing enough. Although John Osborn tenor is not truly very ingratiating, his ease with high tessitura, his ability to shift to mezza voce, his idiomatic French and, most of all, his understanding of French style made me listen to this music under a new light. He is also a singer incapable of vulgarity or nonsense. Laurent Alvaro’s forward-produced bass-baritone, absolutely crystalline pronunciation and wide tonal palette could appear in a sound dictionary of “French style” – and he is also a charismatic and intelligent singer who could always found a viable alternative when things got either too high or too low or just too loud.
The light-voiced cast had the luck of having in Kazushi Ono a conductor who did not try to make it the Wagnerian way: the orchestra kept a very light and bright sound, not particularly pleasant or smooth, but very well-balanced with singers on stage. I would say that Mr. Ono has concentrated his performance on tempi, which were invariably right for this music: forward-moving, bouncy in a theatrical way and respective of the natural flow of French language.
When it comes to the edition adopted by the Lyon Opera, it seems to be Jean-Christophe Keck’s 2003 Lausanne version, but I wouldn’t really be able to tell if there is something different, especially in the Giulietta act, which had some awkward turns.