OFFENBACH The Tales of Hoffmann
Stefan Herheim’s production of Offenbach’s opéra fantastique raised more than a few eyebrows when it opened in Bregenz last year, and now it has appeared on DVD one can understand why. It’s carefully billed in the opening credits as an ‘adaptation’ by Herheim himself, conductor Johannes Debus and dramaturg Olaf A Schmitt, though it takes as its starting points a number of prominent features of the work itself: its emphasis on multiple personalities; an element of gender fluidity, which Offenbach confines to the figure of Nicklausse/La Muse; and the fact that despite ceaseless musicological efforts, there is still no definitive score, leaving conductors and producers with an array of material from which to choose.
Herheim’s protagonist is drag queen Stella, played by actor Pär (Pelle) Karlsson, whom we first encounter plunging drunkenly down a flight of stairs during the course of a Busby Berkeley style revue. What follows is a blurry phantasmagoria in which the boundaries of narrative and psychology are deliberately kept uncertain. Daniel Johansson’s Hoffmann is possibly Stella’s lover, possibly her male alter ego. Rachel Frenkel’s Muse and Hoffmann’s various loves wear copies of Stella’s sequinned gown or her fetish-wear undies. Michael Volle, as the villains, is first seen shouting homophobic abuse from the stalls before invading the stage as some kind of spirit of negativity. But even he is eventually drawn into the staging’s sexually ambivalent world, donning drag as Miracle in order to torment Mandy Fredrich’s Antonia. Christophe Mortagne as the various servants, meanwhile, choreographs the resulting confusion dressed as Offenbach himself.
Not all of it works. The Antonia episode, in which Fredrich sings herself to death surrounded by tap dancers, doesn’t chill the marrow as much as it can. Kerstin Avemo’s Olympia is a sex doll that disturbingly develops a mind of its own. The Venetian scenes, so often problematic, come off best as a sinister game of desire and death. Herheim dispenses with Schlemil. Giulietta has become a decadent trinitarian Venus with Avemo, Fredrich and Frenkel shuttling the vocal line between them, while Mortagne-Offenbach plies a funeral gondola through the canals. It all looks glossy but could be more slick: if you’re going to evoke Busby Berkeley, then the big numbers need to be more together than they are here.
The Kaye-Keck edition forms the base text, though there are cuts and reorderings. Importations from Guiraud allow Volle, mesmerising throughout, to sing ‘Scintille diamant’ with considerable grace. Johansson’s big-voiced Hoffmann lacks a genuine pianissimo but phrases elegantly. Avemo sounds grainy when not in alt. Fredrich and Frenkel are nicely stylish. Debus can be very polished: playing and choral singing are both excellent. It doesn’t have the unsettling quality of Christoph Marthaler’s also flawed Madrid staging conducted by Sylvain Cambreling. John Schlesinger’s Royal Opera production is still your best bet if you want something more traditional.