Friday, 28 May 2010

Review of The Tales of Hoffmann (Paris Opera)

Robert Carsen's production of The Tales of Hoffmann for the Paris Opera dates from 2000 and has, so far, received 44 performances. We saw it on Wednesday 26th May, towards the end of the current run. The production seems to have been designed to show off the technical prowess of the Bastille theatre, something it does brilliantly without impeding the drama. The theatre uses the grand opera version of the piece, with sung recitative rather than spoken dialogue. Something to be expected in an international house, but a disappointment all the same, especially as so many of the cast were French.

The edition used was the basic Choudens one, with the addition of a number of extra pieces. The Venice act was correctly placed at the end. The role of the Muse/Niklausse was the one to benefit most, with a number of additions including numbers for the Muse at the opening and close.

In the programme book, dramaturg Alain Patrick Olivier was dismissive of the more recent attempts at reconstruction of the work. Certainly Tales of Hoffmann does need a firm editorial hand if the performance is not to sprawl. But in one respect the version used in Paris is no more successful than many others; the end of the Venice act remained dramatically unconvincing and musically weak, something of a damp squib. It is here that we might hope that the various sketches that have been discovered might shed light on a more musically satisfying conclusion.

Paris included both Scintille Diamant and the sextet in Act 3. Neither are by Offenbach but both are so well known that it is difficult to omit them.

Carsen and his designer, Michael Levine, opened the prologue on the wide open spaces of the empty stage. Hoffmann (Giuseppe Filianoti) slumped at the front of the stage, was addressed by his Muse (Ekaterina Gubanova). Carsen failed to address the twinning of Niklausse and the Muse, neither at the beginning nor at the end did we see the one transformed into the other.

Then came a coup de theatre, the entire set for an act of Don Giovanni passed before our eyes. Mozart's opera is the one being sung by Stella, Hoffmann's current love. And it is the entire context for Carsen's production, each act took place in and around the theatre playing the production. The remainder of the scene with Lindorf (Franck Ferrari) took place as if in the wings of the opera.

Then, for the entry of the chorus, another coup. A bar (of the drinking variety) rises from the stage, we are behind it with Luther (Alain Vernhes) and his waiters as they serve the chorus crowding to get a drink. A very neat solution to the problem of creating a degree of intimacy in this scene.

The chorus had one or two moments of bad ensemble, there was much stage movement and Jesus Lopez Cobos's conducting was perhaps more relaxed than it could have been.

Each of the subsequent acts was set in different parts of the theatre. For Act 1 we were backstage during a performance of Don Giovanni with the chorus dressed in the requisite Spanish costumes and some of the action played as if part of the opera with Spalanzani (Rudolphe Briand) as a demented back-stage technician.

For Act 2 were were in the orchestral pit with the stage, complete with curtains and set, towering above us. Dr Miracle (Franck Ferrari) was a demented conductor, Crespel (Alain Vernhes) an orchestral violinist and Inva Mula his daughter Antonia. her mother (Cornelia Oncion) appeared as Donna Anna on the upper stage.

For the Venice act we were on the stage looking out over the auditorium, whose seats swayed in time to the music of the barcarolle. Carsen solved the problem of the Barcarolle by having Niklausse and Giulietta (Beatrice Uria-Monzon) sing it as if Niklausse is hearing Giulietta's lines; at least Niklausse has a score and Giulietta does not. The Barcarolle is a problem because having Niklausse sing it is not dramatically coherent, he's trying to get Hoffmann away not hymning the delights of love (or lust). In fact, allocating the part to Niklausse happened simply because it had to go to the important singers!

Here Dapertutto (Franck Ferrari) was a demented director rehearsing his cast. Despite weak dramaturgy of this act, it made it work. Then finally for the epilogue we were back on an empty stage. There was no transformation, the Muse just appeared, which was quite a significant loss.

Franck Ferrari played the 4 villains and played them very creditably. He wasn't always comfortable in the higher passages but he coped well and certainly did not resort to barking. He was not quite mad enough for me in the guise of Dr. Miracle, but his performance had a certain cumulative power.

Leonard Pezzino gave sterling support in the 4 character tenor roles and showed a nice sense of comedy. Rodolphe Brian was the nicely batty professor Spalanzani. With Alain Vernhes doublng Luther (patron of the bar) and Crespel.

The soprano roles were split between 3 singers. Laura Aiken was Olympia, entering into the doll antics with a will (and a great sense of fun) but displaying some rather hard toned coloratura. Inva Mula made an attractive Antonia. This is rather a wet part and the singer needs all her skill to make us care about her. Mulva did, just, though her tone was occasionally less than ravishing. Finally Beatrice Uria-Monzon was a wonderfully glamorous Giulietta. The silent role of Stella was not credited.

Giuseppe Filianoti gave a towering performance as Hoffmann. Granted his tone did not always bloom at the solo moments and he did sound tired towards the end of Act 3. But he gave us a lively, attractive and highly personable Hoffmann, and entered into all the antics required with a will.

Perhaps he needs to learn a little from Alfredo Kraus, another lyric tenor who sang Hoffmann very successfully. Like Kraus, Filianoti should not try to push his voice towards the more fuller tones produced by Domingo. Kraus knew that in some roles, less is more.

Filianoti was charming and lively, but I have kept the best to last. Ekaterina Gubanova was just wonderful as Niklauss. She sang with flexibility and sense, moulding the line and she kept a knowing twinkle in her eye and voice when singing Niklausse. She is coming back to Covent Garden in The Tsar's Bride but on this showing I want to see her in more lyric roles.

Jesus Lopez Cobos's direction was neat and perhaps just a shade to undemonstrative. But he kept everything flowing and, in an opera where things can drag, made the work flow nicely.

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