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Posts Tagged ‘Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann’

Every time I have to write about Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, I wonder what editorial choices might have escaped me. Without my books and writing from an iPhone do not help either. Anyway, the Komische Oper explains that this is the Kaye/Keck edition. But not so fast – Frantz’s Jour et nuit is inexplicably inserted in the Giulietta scene, to start with.

As performed this evening, all dialogues and/or recitatives were replaced by a patchwork of texts by E.T.A. Hoffmann read in German by an actor playing the role of “old Hoffmann”. The effect was mostly confusing and failed to provide the audience with the necessary information to understand what would come next. The prologue missed the glouglou chorus but featured almost a page of the overture of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Nicklausse retained all his arias, but suffered cuts in recitatives in the prologue and never transformed into the muse in the epilogue. The Olympia act seemed practically “normal”, but Antonia died without trilling over recapitulation of previously sung material. The Giulietta act retains the barcarolle, but looses Scintille, Diamant and ends in the ensemble in which Hoffmann is laughed at for having lost his mirror reflection. The epilogue has more Mozart than anything else.

Have I forgotten to mention that the prologue and act I have been done in the “baritone version “? As a result, Hoffmann is “upgraded” to the tenor range after the intermission (the final Hoffmann count is three performers: one actor and two singers).

As we can see, most choices have been made rather to accommodate the production than for any musical reasons. That could have been relevant if this production turned around musical values. As it is, this performance is about the staging, and conductor Stefan Blunier is there to perform the traffic cop duties. His concerns are about tempo in the sense of keeping up with the stage action: clarity, tonal coloring, structural understanding are matters of no consequence. If the director requires unwritten pauses, voice overs, you name it, no problem. The poor Barcarolle has to do without soloists, invisibly singing somewhere in Poland, I can only guess.

Nicole Chevalier’s acting abilities are praiseworthy; she is utterly convincing as every one of Hoffmann’s love interests. Vocally, it is a different story. Her high soprano tackles Olympia high tessitura effortlessly, but the coloratura has its blurred moments. Antonia brought about a nasal, grainy and unattractive middle register. Here we have the coloratura Giulietta, and a brighter and better focused sound made her more appealing than in the previous act. The fioriture in her big aria was more hinted at than truly articulated. Alexandra Cadurina, whom I saw as Dorabella at the Bolshoi last year, is a fruity, clean Nicklausse who was not always true in intonation, certainly vivacious and charming.

The choice of a baritone and a tenor Hoffmanns would have made more sense with a darker-toned baritone and brighter-toned tenor. Dominik Köninger was a faceless Guglielmo in Tokyo, but has developed a warmer sound since then. The baritone version makes Hoffmann more introvert and elegant – the Kleinzach aria gains a lot in dignity (I invariably find it vulgar and boring) without effortful acuti. Although Mr. Köninger miscalculated some high notes, he sang with sense of style and good French. The choice of Edgaras Montvidas for the remaining acts puzzles me – it is a voice essentially throaty and lacking projection, foreign to the peculiarities of French opera. Although Dimitry Ivashchenko was not in his best voice as the four villains, his is always a commanding voice spacious up to his top notes and down into his low register. He still needs to be better acquainted with the language of Racine and Molière, though.

Barrie Kosky says he finds Offenbach a genius, but curiously tampers with his music whenever it does not suit his purposes. In any case, his is an aesthetically attractive production, focused on the actors and intelligently conceived in terms of staging (all scenic elements cleverly taken profit of), but curiously short in insight, finally more entertaining than enlightening.

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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.

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