11 Feb 2012
The Tales of Hoffmann, ENO
In many respects, The Tales of Hoffmann and Richard Jones would seem a good fit.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
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800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
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As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
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As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.