The second performance of ENO’s Tales of Hoffmann on Thursday didn’t contradict much of what I’d read in the reviews after opening night. Richard Jones’s new production—hotfooting it over from Munich where before Christmas it had starred Rolando Villazón and Diana Damrau—is characteristically sharp, witty and, especially in the brilliant Olympia act, saturated with the director’s favourite sort of mid-twentieth-century kitsch.
|Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou|
I’m not especially well versed in the complicated editorial issues surrounding the work, but agree with what seems to be the general consensus: the material added in to the Kaye-Keck edition is not all top-drawer; and, as Tim Ashley notes, some of the Guiraud additions can be helpful to the overall structure. Either way, it’s a shame, though, that the ENO programme didn’t really address or properly clarify these issues, or even those regarding the broader questions the opera throws up—the mechanization of coloratura and Antonia’s self-undoing through the very act of singing are the sort of thing to get any musicologist’s juices flowing.
|Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou|
But while Hoffmann is a fascinating, flawed work, it’s not one that is necessarily that easy to like. And Jones, for all the smart theatricality of his production, didn’t really do much to make us identify with Hoffmann’s ‘affairs’ as anything more than coolly abstract experiments, with Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta as female archetypes chemically extracted from a whole and put, as it were, on an operatic petri dish.
That's probably putting it a bit too strongly, but with even the locals at Luther’s pub appearing as part of Hoffmann’s booze-fuelled hallucinations, it was difficult to get really drawn in to the drama. It’s all brilliantly realized, but there’s not much to add warmth to what’s a rather cold evening’s opera.
The cast, however, are outstanding, led by an ardent Barry Banks as Hoffmann. If the voice doesn’t necessarily bloom as one might like, he’s a stylish singer entirely in control of the role. The same can be said for Georgia Jarman and Clive Bayley in their multiple roles. The soprano acts brilliantly as the automaton
Olympia, the consumptive Antonia and the high-class hooker Giulietta, and her singing is marvellously accomplished; here’s one of what must be a small number of singers who can be convincing in all these roles (Damrau in , by all accounts, is another). But, if you'll permit me a bit of canary fancying, I don't think even Damrau, who made her name in coloratura roles, can erase memories of Natalie Dessay as Munich in 2000, before she had vocal problems, and when the voice apparently went onwards and upwards as far as the ear could hear. Here's Damrau in Munich in a clip that gives an idea of how brilliant Jones's direction is in this scene. Olympia
Here's Dessay in Vienna in 1996. She only, of course, does the one role; but does (did) anyone do it better?
Bayley’s knack for evil made him perfectly suited to the villains, even if ‘Scintille diamant’ might have been more elegantly phrased. Simon Butteriss was sharp as a tack as the servants and Christine Rice just about perfect as Nicklausse.
Another ‘problem’ work is Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette; at least it is usually seen as such. Part of the reason is the fact that it exists in characteristically Berliozian sui-generis limbo. Cast in seven sort-of movements, it mixes narrative from soloists and chorus with purely instrumental evocations, descriptions, transcriptions (call them what you will) of the key dramatic moments. David Cairns has written a nice little intro to it over on the Guardian, but this wonderful performance at the Royal Festival Hall, with Mark Elder conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (in repertoire that could hardly, however, be more Révolutionnaire et Romantique) did more to refute Tovey’s description of the work as ‘incoherent and unwieldy’ than any of Cairns’s arguments. It certainly made it seem coherent—necessarily so, since the OAE’s admirable idea to hand out free programmes was undone by a shortage of them. It still felt unwieldy, but gloriously so. The orchestra repeat bits of it at one of their Night Shifts this Friday, 24 February, at 9pm at the Camden Roundhouse, and microphones were on hand, presumably for radio broadcast.