11 Feb 2012
The Tales of Hoffmann, ENO
In many respects, The Tales of Hoffmann and Richard Jones would seem a good fit.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
In many respects, The Tales of Hoffmann and Richard Jones would seem a good fit.
An opéra fantastique, with which Offenbach at the end of his career wished to show the world that he was not a mere purveyor of enjoyable froth, certainly offers plenty of opportunity for the surreally-inclined. (Jones’s controversial 1990s Ring for the Royal Opera House garnered plaudits and brickbats on that basis. Sadly, if not entirely unpredictably, it proved not to be Bernard Haitink’s idea of a Ring at all.) The pipe emblazoned upon the stage curtain and the pipes being smoked by Hoffmann and the students seem to hold the key to the director’s conception. Whatever it is that is being smoked would appear to lie behind the visions. Fair enough, but there is perhaps a little too much of the surface psychedelic, especially during the second (here, first) act, and not enough truly Romantic, Gothic darkness. We are dealing with Offenbach rather than Hoffmann himself, of course, but it would be beneficial to see, if not to hear, a little more of the hero, a still grossly underappreciated figure in the English-speaking world. (One really needs German.) Some of what we see resembles a little too closely Jones’s Covent Garden productions of Gianni Schicchi and The Gambler. Difficult though it may be to feel sympathy for the 1950s, a decade of closed-mindedness if every there were one, is it always necessary to send them up so garishly as in the Olympia act? (At least I assume that was what was being attempted.) Why a gorilla was wandering around the stage before and during the fourth (here, third) act, I simply have no idea. Its inclusion seemed to add nothing beyond reminding us of the ménagerie in that splendid production of The Gambler. The appearance of Dr Miracle as Antonia opens her music is very nicely handled, though, likewise the appearance of her mother’s voice through a gramophone trumpet. It is, then, an enjoyable production; costumes, movement, and lighting are all well handled in the production’s own terms. The same basic set is varied imaginatively between acts, providing a finer sense of overall framing than the production as a whole. I just could not help but think that Offenbach’s desire to be taken seriously might have been taken a little more seriously.
From the singers, there was much to enjoy. Barry Banks sang a decent enough English-language Hoffmann, though his style was more Italianate, occasionally jarringly so, than Gallic. If there was not an especially strong sense of Hoffmann as artist, especially at the end, then that was at least as much down to production as performance. Christine Rice, however, made a fine Nicklausse. (She also appeared as Hoffmann’s Muse, that doubling respecting Offenbach’s original intention.) Again, one could not help but wish that the words were in French, but Rice’s palpable sincerity won through time and time again, ‘Vois sous l'archet frémissant’ – I cannot recall what the English was – a particular, soaring highlight. Georgia Jarman, making her ENO debut, truly impressed by taking on all four of Hoffmann’s lovers: Stella, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta. Her characterisation varied, bringing something quite new to each of them. Antonia’s fate was rendered as moving as the production – and the music – would allow; Giulietta proved properly seductive; and save for a few slight intonational problems at the very beginning, Olympia’s mechanical coloratura was despatched with great aplomb. Catherine Young’s off-stage turn as the Mother’s Voice (a ghost, traditionally) was beautifully performed. Mention must also be made of Simon Butteriss, kept busy with four different roles: Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio. Clearly at home in drag as Cochenille, he also provided a wickedly camp turn as the servant Frantz.
Barry Banks and Georgia Jarman
The ENO orchestra once again proved to be on fine form, though Antony Walker’s direction was less sure-footed. Here, at least, one might have hoped for a little more Gallic suavity; there were times when his approach veered a little close to thinned-down Tchaikovsky (less a point of view, it seemed, than a lack of idiomatic command). Given that the work was performed in English, spoken dialogue might have been a better bet than recitative. Amplification of the chorus at the end was surely both unnecessary and oddly sentimentalising, as if we had come to the end of a Hollywood ‘Romantic comedy’. Again, Offenbach’s desire to be taken seriously might have been taken more seriously. The production is worth seeing, and the cast certainly makes it worth hearing, but one would struggle to discern a message, let alone a Konzept.