OFFENBACH Les Contes d'Hoffmann
The Tales of Hoffmann, an opéra fantastique, was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in February 1881. Offenbach had been working on it for several years but he didn’t live to see it performed. It was completed by Ernest Guiraud, he who composed the recitatives for Carmen after Bizet’s death; since then it has been subjected to various tinkerings, including changing the order of the acts and adding material from elsewhere.
The opera begins with Hoffmann in a tavern, recalling his doomed passion for a mechanical doll, a mortally ill singer and a courtesan, all three of them embodied in his current lover. At the end he is consoled and encouraged by his muse, in the shape of his friend Nicklausse. This production is based on a modern edition which presumably sought to recreate the original draft: so there’s no ‘Scintille, diamant’ for Dapertutto, and spoken dialogue has
been restored (no information on the ‘new libretto version’, though). The four villains are correctly taken by one singer, as are the four servants. That the soprano roles are allocated to different performers is understandable enough, as the voice-types are so different: Natalie Dessay and her alternate, Eglise Gutiérrez, both backed away from the challenge.
Laurent Pelly’s production, unobtrusively filmed by Louise Narboni, is straightforward: no gimmicks, simple sets by Chantal Thomas, late-19th-century costumes credited to Pelly and Jean-Jacques Delmotte. The women are all good. Kathleen Kim is so convincing as Olympia the doll, with her jerky movements, that you wonder how Hoffmann and her audience could possibly be deceived. Dessay, with rather too much vibrato, is Antonia, heart-rendingly well acted; and Tatiana Pavlovskaya makes a suitably sultry, heartless Giulietta. Michèle Losier brings a surprisingly rich mezzo to the trouser role of Niklausse. If Michael Spyres doesn’t have quite enough heft, his portrayal of the title-role, dishevelled or elegant, carries conviction. Laurent Naouri is outstanding as the villains.
Stéphane Denève whips up the excitement where required; a pity that the offstage voice of Antonia’s mother is hard to hear in the trio. John Schlesinger’s superlative Covent Garden production is a different animal: corrupt edition, terrific cast led by Plácido Domingo.