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15 Oct 2015

The Tales of Hoffmann — English Touring Orchestra

Jacques Offenbach’s opéra fantastique, The Tales of Hoffmann, is a notoriously Protean beast: the composer’s death during rehearsals, four months before the premiere left the opera in an ‘non-definitive’ state which has since led to the acts being shuffled like cards, music being added, spoken dialogue and recitative vying for supremacy, the number of singers performing the principal roles varying, and even changes to the story itself — the latter being an amalgam of three tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann.

In this production, the third of English Touring Opera’s autumn-tour French triptych, The Tales of Hoffmann is given coherence - and imbued with irony, wit and dramatic impact - by director James’ Bonas’s decision to employ the frame of the ‘silent screen’ through which Hoffmann, and we, re-visit his confused, alcohol-befuddled memories of his obsessive love for his muse, the singer Stella. And, Bonas is served well by his terrific cast whose singing prowess is complemented by some virtuoso acting.

In the Prologue, the credits roll for a Hollywood reel which will chart Hoffmann’s tragic pursuit of ideal love - a sort of home-movie for the dubious delectation and moral instruction of his disreputable comrades. The screening of this ‘lesson in love’ is overseen by Sam Furness’s jaded and disillusioned Hoffmann, a slumped figure of dejection, pathos blending with mundanity - a former Romantic hero now reduced to an idler blowing smoke rings.

Offenbach’s Prologue can sometimes feel a little slow off the mark, with its choruses and situation-setting, but Bonas quickly establishes a lively dynamic and narrative propulsion. Visually, the retro cinema screen and tripod lights create a mood of anticipation; physically, the hyperbolic comedy, sharp parody and smart, slick timing are immediately engaging. Warwick Fyfe’s Lindorf is a walking Gothic horror show, with his bandy knees, angular gait, sickly pallor and sunken eye-sockets. And, Hoffmann’s ghastly nemesis seems to become ever more cadaverous as the evening progresses, emerging from a closet like a literal and proverbial skeleton. Oliver Townsend’s designs are wonderfully lit by Mark Howland, with excellent use of shadow.

The cinematic trope is sustained throughout the three main acts - I’m sure there were countless direct filmic allusions but I’m insufficiently au fait with the big screen ‘canon’ to have spotted them - and images and text from the movies which Hoffmann and the boys watch are projected atmospherically across the stage and onto the stage-side screens. In the Epilogue, the film screen is ripped enabling Stella and the Muse to appear out of the screen - further emphasizing the conflict between reality and fantasy which the opera dramatizes.

Each Act has a distinct style and mood, and Bonas’s realisations of Hoffmann’s increasingly desperate slide into self-destructive obsession are imaginative and original. Coppélius’s mechanical masterpiece is a shrivelled, transparent doll whose garish pink and purple ‘blood-vessels’ are clearly visible as they pump electricity around her twisted form, as - manipulated like a bunraku puppet by Ilona Domnich (singing the soprano triple-role) and an assistant - she dances, cavorts and then whirls like a dervish, with Domnich occasionally stepping in to take the automaton’s place, the stage flooding with a lurid pink glare. One critic has questioned the credulity of this scene: ‘the audience is asked to accept a small, faceless light-doll as the object of his desires, albeit one that’s bewilderingly interlaced with flash appearances by soprano in person’. But, surely this is the point: Hoffmann is duped by Cupid - like the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream he looks with ‘parted eye’, as love works its ‘magic’ on his imagination and vision, just as surely Coppélius’s magic glasses make Olympia appear as a real woman. Thus, the moments when Domnich assumes the doll’s place painfully reveal the hopelessness of his infatuation; he really does believe that he is dancing with the woman he reveres.

The Antonia and Giulietta Acts are full of similar, surreal devices and symbols: disembodied heads appear through small trap-doors in the set, a chaise longue replaces the gondola in the ‘Barcarolle’; and, the whole of the Antonia Act is a grotesque extravaganza of German Expressionism, with Lindoro transformed into Dr Miracle aka the evil Count Orlok from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

Sam Furness was tireless in the title role and blended an ethereally beautiful head voice with focused lyrical power and rich warmth. Furness also showed good sense in pacing himself and ensuring that he had the stamina to sustain the lyrical intensity; indeed, he began strongly, but held enough in reserve to offer some thrillingly impassioned singing in the Antonia and Giulietta Acts. He was utterly convincing as the somewhat shabby poet-turned-filmmaker.

Domnich has a smooth, lustrous soprano which she used expressively and elegantly. She found the upper reaches of the ‘Doll aria’ quite demanding and the tuning wasn’t always spot on, but as Antonio and Guiletta she made an enormous contribution to the compelling power of the drama portrayed; her arias were unfailing stylish and polished, seductive fare for Hoffmann’s romantic appetite.

Making his British debut, Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe was superb as the four vampiric villains, acting with persuasively macabre excess and offering plenty of vocal punch too, even if the line was not always completely controlled and occasionally the timbre a little rough round the edges. But, one might equally argue that a slight lack of vocal suavity was just right for the four incarnations of wickedness, and Fyfe traversed the wide compass of the roles securely.

As the Muse and Nicklausse, Louise Mott demonstrated a firm, precise mezzo which she used to good musical and dramatic effect, especially in her manifestation as Antonia’s mother and in the Muse’s aria in the Epilogue. A petulant schoolboy in long shorts, knee-high socks and schoolboy cap, this Nicklausse didn’t just hang around in the background, in the moments when he has no direct involvement in the action, but got on with his homework or other such business.

The supporting cast worked hard, doubling roles and serving as a ‘chorus’, and we got a strong sense of individualised characters from the first. The Kleinzach interlude in the Prologue was wittily done, and there was a convincing air of camaraderie, foolery and fun. Adam Tunnicliffe was strong-voiced as Spalanzani and Pitichinaccio (perhaps a little too strong at times?), and Matt R. J. Ward hammed up the role of Frantz, the family servant, delightfully in the Antonia Act, singing and dancing with side-splitting ineptitude. Tim Dawkins, too, acted and sang commandingly as Antonia’s father, Crespel.

The small band of players might have lacked timbral lushness but they brought forth the melodic splendour of Offenbach’s score - solo instrumental utterances were an affecting commentary on the on-stage action - and conductor Philip Sunderland showed good appreciation of the style and pace of the work. The opera was sung in English - with diversions into French and Italian in appropriate contexts - and Jeff Clarke’s translation settled well into the Hollywood milieu; the spoken dialogue (there was some recitative too) was clearly enunciated by the cast.

This may not have been a ‘grand opera’ such as Offenbach (we imagine) envisaged, but in paring away some of the luxuriousness, Bonas has produced a convincing, stylish drama, mixing parody and horror to excellent effect: an inebriating cocktail of the Romantic and the Gothic.

Claire Seymour

Offenbach : The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring OIpera, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London.
Saturday 10th October 2015

Hoffmann - Sam Furness, Stella/Olympia/Antonia/Guiletta - Ilona Domnich, Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr Miracle/Dappertutto - Warwick Fyfe Muse/Nicklausse/Antonia’s mother - Louise Mott, Nathaniel/Spalanzani/Pitichinaccio - Adam Tunnicliffe, Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz - Matt R. J. Ward, Luther/Crespel - Tim Dawkins, Hermann/Schlémil - Ashley Mercer; director - James Bonas, conductor - Philip Sunderland, designer - Oliver Townsend, lighting designer - Mark Howland, choreographer - Ewan Jones, video designer - Zakk Hein.

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