Posts Tagged ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Hoffmannovy Povídky, Tales of Hoffmann), Národní Divadlo (National Theatre), Prague, December 2010

31 December, 2010

This production by Ondřej Havelka places Hoffmann’s three previous lovers in the order that I think Offenbach intended: Olympia the mechanical doll, Antonia the daughter of a famous singer, and finally Giulietta the Venetian courtesan. From a dramatic point of view this sequence is the most effective, but Offenbach died more than a year before the first complete performance, and his opera is performed in various versions. In particular the Antonia act is sometimes placed after Giulietta since it’s considered musically more accomplished.

The story begins and ends in a tavern where Hoffmann awaits his lover Stella, a well-known opera singer who’s performing that evening. His nemesis Count Lindorf plots to take Stella away from him, and when Hoffmann replays the stories of his three lovers, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, Lindorf reappears as a malevolent force in the guise of: Coppelius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto. Tomasz Konieczny gave a fine performance of all four roles, showing excellent stage-presence. Ideally all four female roles should also be performed by one singer, but such versatility is extremely rare. Here we had Jana Bernáthová as Olympia, beautifully coordinating her coloratura with the doll’s awkward mechanical actions — she was superb. As Antonia in Act II, Pavla Vykipalová gave a gently sad portrayal, while in the background a projection of her mother gradually comes to life and enters the stage as a Wagnerian Valkyrie. Tomasz Konieczny was particularly strong here as the evil Dr. Miracle, entering the house through the walls, unannounced and unwanted. As Giulietta in Act III, Maida Hundeling, a singer of roles such as Tosca and Turandot, gave a big-voiced performance, well suited to the costumes in bold red, black and white colours with their gold and silver touches.

The ending of the Giulietta scene, before Hoffmann is transported back to the tavern, offers the director various alternatives. I prefer to see Giulietta die by drinking poison that her confidante Dapertutto has prepared for Hoffmann, but here Dapertutto’s magic saves her from the thrust of Hoffmann’s sword, and he merely succeeds in killing her servant Pitichinaccio. When we are swept back into the tavern, Stella appears, vanishes, and reappears in triplicate as all three lovers stalk the stage in identical costumes. It’s a good ending to a fine production, with Valentin Prolat portraying Hoffmann as a pawn in the whole affair.

The orchestra and singers were soundly conducted by Zbyněk Müller, and Atala Schöck sang superbly as the muse and as Hoffmann’s ever-present companion Nicklausse. This Hungarian mezzo has a glorious voice, and I look forward to hearing her again one day.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Metropolitan Opera live relay, December 2009

20 December, 2009

The main character in this fascinating opera by Offenbach is Hoffmann himself, gloriously sung here by Joseph Calleja. He first appears in a tavern where the menacing Count Lindorf is determined to steal his lover, the opera singer Stella. Lindorf has stolen a letter from her to Hoffmann, who entertains the company by describing three earlier loves, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta, all of whom portray aspects of Stella. In the ensuing story, Lindorf first reappears as Coppelius, creator of Hoffmann’s first lover, the mechanical doll Olympia, brilliantly performed here by Kathleen Kim. His second transformation is as Dr. Miracle, overseeing the death of Hoffmann’s second lover Antonia, beautifully sung by Anna Netrebko. Miracle once oversaw the death of Antonia’s mother, and though banned from the house he manages to enter and persuade Antonia to sing. This leads to her death after she has just promised to marry Hoffmann. Lindorf’s third transformation is as Dappertutto, confidante to Hoffmann’s third lover, the courtesan Giulietta, who was sung by Ekaterina Gubanova. Dapertutto attempts to destroy Hoffmann by getting Giulietta to steal his image from a mirror, after which she disappears in a gondola. Hoffmann then finds himself back in the tavern where he loses Stella to Lindorf, leaving him to his muse and his drink.

Lindorf and the three thaumaturges are one and the same, and were all excellently sung by Alan Held. He, Joseph Calleja, and his muse, sung by Kate Lindsey, were the driving forces behind this fine performance, well aided by James Levine in the orchestra pit. Alan Held’s presence was suitably dark, and Kate Lindsey was outstanding as both a beautiful muse and Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse, who is mysteriously present throughout. They are powerful forces of despair and recovery for Hoffmann, and Joseph Calleja performed that difficult role with glorious singing and a sympathetic stage presence.

This production by Bartlett Sher is powerful in its representation of the imagery behind Hoffmann’s passions, and is well aided by Michael Yeargan’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes, and choreography by Dou Dou Huang. I particularly liked the fact that Hoffmann’s lovers were in the correct dramatic order, though so many other productions switch the order of Antonia and Giulietta. They do that because the producer finds the music for Antonia stronger than that for Giulietta, but the drama of the mirror in Giulietta’s scene is crucial because it allows the magus, alias Lindorf, to show Hoffmann that his image of himself is but an image that can be wiped out, leaving the poet to his muse and his companions.

My only complaint with this production is that it lacks the ending of the Giulietta scene when she drinks poison prepared for Hoffmann, and Departutto cries out, Ah, Giulietta, maladroite! With this ending to the act, Hoffmann has destroyed all three representations of Stella and is ready to live again for his muse.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Royal Opera, November 2008

30 November, 2008

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This was opening night, so Rolando Villazon can be forgiven for starting out rather weakly as Hoffmann, particularly as he strengthened during the performance and did a fine job of the final scene at the tavern. This opera is an intriguing work, where Hoffmann describes three earlier loves, Olympia, Giulietta, and Antonia, all of whom portray aspects of his current lover, the opera singer Stella. The well-dressed Count Lindorf appears in the tavern and is determined to detach her from Hoffmann. He then appears first as Coppelius, creator of Hoffmann’s first lover, the mechanical doll Olympia; second as Dappertutto the confidante of Hoffmann’s next lover, the courtesan Giulietta; and third as Dr. Miracle, overseeing the death of Hoffmann’s other lover Antonia. She has a beautiful voice, inherited from her late mother, but her father blames Miracle for the death, forbids Antonia to sing, and bans Miracle from the house. But Miracle enters, persuades her to sing, and she dies in Hoffman’s arms. The three thaumaturges and Count Lindorf are one and the same, and these four incarnations were well sung by Gidon Saks, though I would have preferred a darker voice and presence.

As to the ladies, Olympia was sung and acted to perfection by Ekaterina Lekhina. It is difficult to imagine a better performance, and I shall always remember this as the highlight of the evening. Giulietta was Christine Rice, Antonia was Katie van Kooten, and Stella was Olga Sabadoch. None could compare to the first one, a feature that would have been avoided by having one soprano for all four roles, as Offenbach intended, though I realise a suitable singer is hard to come by. The strange house servant for all three of the young ladies destroyed by Hoffmann’s attentions was extremely well sung and portrayed by Graham Clark, and Kristine Jepson was good as Hoffmann’s companion. Antonio Pappano conducted with superb lyricism, and this was a fine performance.

The original production was by John Schlesinger, and I suppose it was his idea to eliminate the end of Act II, so Giulietta simply sails off in a gondola instead of drinking the poison that Dapertutto has prepared for Hoffmann. She should die in Hoffmann’s arms, like the other two. He holds the doll as it disintegrates, and holds Antonia as she dies. I was very disappointed that they missed the final music for this act, and Dapertutto’s, “Ah, Giulietta, maladroite!”, which for me is one of the high points of the opera.

Highly recommended, but losing the end of Act II partly loses the plot, because Hoffmann, allied by the magus, destroys his lovers, and in recalling these destructions he is ready to let Stella go. By forcing Hoffmann metaphorically to see himself in a mirror, the magus, alias Count Lindorf, wins the woman who combines all three lovers. And that is a good reason for going back to Offenbach’s original order for the three acts: Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, where the final one of these uses a mirror to capture Hoffmann’s image. It is a great shame that Offenbach died before the first performance, as this has given other people the excuse to monkey around with his intentions. Can we please get back to the original!! Yes, it’s long, but if we use the original spoken dialogue instead of recitative, we won’t need the cuts. Sets designs by William Dudley were excellent, as were the costumes by Maria Bjoernson, and the lighting by David Hersey was superb.

This opening night was dedicated to Richard Hickox, who conducted the previous performances in 2004, and had died suddenly a few days earlier.