Since Les Contes d’Hoffmann is technically the only opera of a composer of operettas, one forgets how it is theatrically and musically difficult. The fact that Offenbach could not prepare a definitive score has a great deal to do with it. As it is, although the various editions around offer different solutions, they all basically try to make it sound less of the patchwork it essentially is: style changes a lot during the opera; the idea of one soprano and one bass-baritone for various roles is as unpractical as having a crowded cast; and the title role is a very tough piece of singing (to say the truth, every role here is far from easy, but the tenor sings far longer than anyone else). The New National Theatre’s present staging, premièred in 2003, uses a composite version – it is basically a generously cut Oeser edition colored by borrowings from the Choudens version (especially in the Giulietta act, where one – most fortunately – can listen to the “inauthentic” diamond aria and the sextet).
Philippe Arlaud’s production has many splashes of kitsch in its acid colors, fake perspectives and cute choreographies. Its overbusyness makes for very little atmosphere and the main characters are often surrounded by dozens of extras. There are some very striking images now and then, but curiously none of them involve the supernatural episodes in the plot, which are very uninterestingly conceived by the creative team. Conductor Frédéric Chaslin too believes in overbusyness – everything here sounded fast and furious. At first, I wished for a little bit more charm and detailed expression, but considering the cast’s limitations, this proved to be a wise decision in a long opera (prologue and epilogue included). There were many moments where singers would be drowned by the orchestra, but judging from what you could still hear from them most of the time, the big orchestral sound was a good trade off.
I had never heard Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz before and I cannot tell if his voice usually sounds as colorless and devoid of squillo as this afternoon. I hope not. In order to send some sound into the auditorium he had to work really hard. Fortunately, he has enough stamina to run a marathon. In the Giulietta act, his middle register was raspish and grey-toned and the low notes were long gone, but he could still muscle up for his high notes without any hesitation. His French is quite passable and he tried to avoid excessive Italianate-ness. It must be said that he has charisma and the perfect attitude for the role, acting with true abandon.
His three love interests were cast with Japanese singers. Hiroko Kouda (Olympia) is the only survivor from the 2003 cast. Her voice is a a little bit richer than one usually hears in this role, but she tried – not without some strain – some very high options. There have been more coruscating Olympias on stage and in records, but Ms. Kouda deserves praise for the intelligent way she portrayed her character’s mechanical nature without tampering with musical values. Keiko Yokoyama (Giulietta)’s soprano has a basically interesting color, but her method involves too much pressure and, even if it seems voluminous enough a voice, imperfect focus does not grant it enough carrying power. Moreover, the role does not fit her placid personality. Although the part of Antonia is on the high side (and the trills off limits) for Rie Hamada, her complex, extra-rich soprano with a touch of Martina Arroyo and sensitive, musicianly phrasing made her the most interesting singer this afternoon.
The Nicklausse, Angela Brower, has a soprano-like mezzo, modest in size but bright enough to pierce through. She is at ease with French style and has good pronunciation of Racine’s language. Hers was a congenial, pleasant performance. Mark S. Doss’s voice is one size smaller than required for the bad-guy roles and a bit curdled in tone, but he is an intelligent singer who offered the best French in the cast, athletic divisions as Dr. Miracle and even managed a smooth Scintille, diamant. This is an opera without unimportant roles and one could have had some imports from France to add some spice. In any case, someone minimally acceptable for the role of Crespel.