OFFENBACH Les Contes d’Hoffmann
‘Pass by, epileptic dunghill without grandeur, hysterical trash-heap of plays and shows!’ The words are Fernando Pessoa’s in his ranting 1917 poem ‘Ultimatum’, a ferocious wartime diatribe against the decline of Western culture. They seem far removed from Offenbach’s opéra fantastique, but in Christoph Marthaler’s sombre production for Madrid’s Teatro Real, Pessoa’s invective is delivered by Altea Garrido’s Stella when she finally faces Eric Cutler’s befuddled Hoffmann in the closing scene. Hoffmann’s failures as man and artist, as far as Marthaler is concerned, are symptomatic of a wider malaise.
Gerard Mortier’s last project as the Teatro Real’s Artistic Director, Marthaler’s staging opened in May 2014, a few weeks after Mortier’s death. It’s set in the art deco bar of Madrid’s own Círculo de Bellas Artes, where assorted arty types assemble to do life-drawing or to listen to Hoffmann’s tales with studied keenness. Dangers lurk, however, both within and beyond its pristine walls. Hoffmann’s nemesis – Vito Priante, thuggish in leather – watches and waits for his moment, a disturbing presence throughout. Swing doors, meanwhile, allow us brief glimpses into a laboratory where Graham Valentine’s mad scientist Spalanzani assembles body parts, prior to producing Ana Durlovski’s Olympia from a large fridge-freezer.
Though splendidly creepy, the staging sometimes misfires. Cutler’s Hoffmann progresses from idealism to self-loathing via attempted sexual violence towards Measha Brueggergosman’s Giulietta, thereby threatening the opera’s balance of sympathies. Antonia is still alive at the end of Act 2 but has become emotionally dead to Hoffmann, we infer, by choosing art over love, which blunts the episode’s horror. When Anne Sofie von Otter’s dipsomaniac Muse reveals her true identity at the end, Hoffmann simply walks away with supreme unconcern. Stella’s poetic rage, it seems, is justified in a morally bankrupt world in which genuine artistic inspiration is redundant.
Musically it’s mostly excellent, if idiosyncratic. The booklet-notes promise ‘a new version’ by Marthaler and Sylvain Cambreling, which in practice means the Oeser edition, to which material from the once standard Choudens score has been added in the Giulietta scenes. Priante consequently gets to sing the much-disputed ‘Scintille diamant’, which he does with the almost sinister beauty of line and tone that makes his villains so utterly engrossing. Cutler is all vocal ease, elegance and passion. Von Otter’s communicative and dramatic powers remain wonderfully persuasive; despite some moments of patchy tone Durlovski is spectacular. Brueggergosman sounds better as Giulietta than as Antonia, which lies too high. Cambreling’s hard-edged intensity won’t be to everyone’s taste, though it suits Marthaler’s moody theatrics to perfection. An acquired taste, but fascinating.