Saturday 11 February 2012

Tales of Hoffmann at the London Coliseum

To the London Coliseum last night (Friday 10th February) to see the first night of Richard Jones's new production of The Tales of Hoffmann The production was first seen last year at the Staatsoper in Munich.

It is some years since ENO performed The Tales of Hoffmann. Graham Vick's production had a very short life and did not succeed in replacing the previous production (which I saw in the late 1980's). ENO have always shown greater interest in the textual problems in the opera, whereas Covent Garden's long running production (directed originally by John Schlesinger) has resolutely set its face against textual innovation and stuck quite firmly to the traditional score, with the odd bit of tinkering.

The programme book for Friday's performance told us that the edition was that of Michael Kaye and Jean-Chrisopher Keck, which is a good start; the Kaye/Keck edition is the most scholarly that we have so far. But decisions still need to be taken, the surviving material for the opera is more like a set of source material from which excisions and inclusions must be made. None of this was covered in the programme book, as used to be the case here; I like to know exactly what I am hearing and why. I understand that in Munich, Richard Jones had a strong hand in deciding what material should be performed, it is a pity that we could not have learned a bit about this.

Instead, all one could do was listen.

The good news is that a pretty full version of the opera was being used, which benefited Christine Rice's Niklausse, enabling Rice to present the fullest possible version of the character complete with the aria in the prologue and a lot else besides. The bad news is that the opera was performed with sung recitatives. No explanation given. That the cast were all English speaking would seem to have been a good opportunity to perform the work with spoken dialogue; in Munich the cast were polyglot and singing in French, so one can understand the desire to use the recitatives. My problem with the recitative version is that of pacing, it seems to inflate things (recitative is inherently slower than dialogue). Undoubtedly Offenbach WOULD have produced a fully sung version, but we have no way of knowing how he would have done this. What this does mean is that it is no longer possible to hear the opera comique version of The Tales of Hoffmann  in London; in fact, if you travel to Paris you the Bastille Opera perform a modified version of the traditional version, complete with sung recit as well!

In Act 1 (Olympia), for Coppelius (Clive Bayley) we had the trio rather than the non-canonic aria ('J'ai des yeux') used in the traditional version, all well and good. In Act 3 (Giulietta) we got quite a lot more than usual, with an extra aria for Giulietta (Georgia Jarman); which takes the role slightly away from the traditional rather dramatic Giulietta. We also got a duet for Giulietta and Hoffmann (Barry Banks) which I don't think I have heard before. We DID get 'Scintille Diamant', based on a melody by Offenbach but first included in the 1908 Monaco production; in fact it is this 1908 production which effectively created the traditional version of the opera. Thankfully we did not get the Sextet.

I am still waiting for some brave soul to take away the barcarolle from Niklausse; it never seems to make dramatic sense to me to have Niklausse singing the barcarolle with Giulietta. Did Offenbach actually intend this? Wouldn't it be better to have the singer playing Antonia's mother reappear and sing the duet with Giulietta?

Of course what we didn't get was a finale to Act 3, instead the end of the act seemed to simply evaporate. This is where I would have liked some discussion about exactly what we are hearing. The Keck/Kaye edition of the opera is now supposed to include all the material including the finale to Act 3. So was that what we heard? I have no idea, and that is very frustrating and a great omission on ENO's part.

And what of the production?

Well, Jones did not provide the radical re-invention of the opera that I'd imagined from reading the reviews of the Munich performances of this production. (Set design Giles Cadle, costume designer Buki Shiff)

The opera opened in Hoffmann's (Barry Banks) flat; a very grand bedsit, complete with wash basin and bed in the corner but with a piano and a very, very grand cabinet on one wall. It is out of this cabinet (which holds drinks) that Niklausse (Christine Rice) appears. The whole opera is set in Hoffmann's flat, but the decor changes with each act and for Giulietta the proportions are distorted. Effectively the whole thing takes place in Hoffmann's head and the characters are all his creations, so at the end in the Epilogue, all the characters from the opera appear and then disappear through the cabinet.

This worked very well and successfully linked the scenes. The most awkward moment dramaturgically was the moment in the prologue when Lindorf (Clive Bayley) appears. It wasn't at all clear quite who he was or what he was doing. But once the students appeared then we were off. The 'students' were all virtually identically dressed and seemed to be perhaps clones off Hoffmann, or simply older companions. Niklausse, by the way, was dressed as a schoolboy and stayed that way for the whole opera.

Regarding casting, all the roles were sung by the same singer; with Georgia Jarman as the soprano, Clive Bayley as the bass and Simon Butteriss in the comic tenor roles.

The Olympia act was set during Hoffmann's childhood (hence the doll) with Spalanzani (Iain Paton) and his female assistant, Cochennille (Simon Butteriss in amazing drag) giving a children's party. The chorus were all dressed in children's clothes and Barry Banks sported a pair of shorts for this act. The handling of the doll Olympia was done very well, with Jarman often swapping places with a real doll and for the Doll's song we saw Jarman's torso but the doll's legs. Olympia had a distinct look of a classic Disney cartoon heroine. Jarman sang the doll's song with a high degree of capability; inevitably she is a lyric soprano with an ability to sing coloratura rather than a specialist but her account of the role was accurate and a delight to listen to. Bayley made a beautifully oily and down at heel Coppelius.

For the Antonia act the flat turned dark and gothic, with Antonia all pale and wan with long dark hair. Bayley showed his merit by turning in a thrillingly creepy performance as Dr. Miracle. Butteriss was, thankfully, out of drag for the role of Frantz and was nicely hilarious in his solo number.

For Giulietta, all proportion had gone. The shaving mirror was now lifesize (and became the mirror used to take away men's souls). As the act opened we had a group of men (the chorus) waiting outside the flat as Giulietta's customers entering one by one and having their soul taken in the mirror (a neat bit of stagecraft her).

Then for the epilogue we were back in the flat as depicted in the prologue except that now the walls were covered in Hoffmann's drawings. There was no real apotheosis, no transformation, Rice simply sang her aria.

What lifted the opera wasn't so much the ideas behind Jones's staging but the stunning performances that he got from his cast. Clive Bayley gave a performance of a lifetime as the four villains, turning in a radically different character in each act; but also singing the role quite fabulously. If the higher lying passages were a strain for him, he didn't show it. I don't think I have heard this singer do anything better.

Georgia Jarman was a similar revelation as the soprano. She is new to me and was nicely capable in each act. If that sounds dismissive, it shouldn't. To sing the soprano heroines capably requires a singer of wide talents. Granted, Antonia wasn't quite a lusciously well upholstered as is sometimes the case when the role is divided between 3 singers. But in Act 1 Jarman revealed a pleasing and accurate coloratura and a nice sense of humour. In Act 2 she looked suitably wan, but her melodic phrasing was beautifully done; musically it was a nicely shaped performance. In Act 3 she contributed some fine singing, but with the extra material sending the role of Giulietta closer to Olympia and further away from the traditional dramatic mezzo account, Jarman seemed to not quite pull the role together; though as I said she sang very well. And being as we had a singer playing Stella she actually sang in the Epilogue, which is all to the good.

Christine Rice was a knockout as Niklausse, nicely knowing and confiding in the audience in a cheeky way. Believably boyish; it has always amazed me that Rice, a singer who can look delightfully voluptuous in female roles, can turn herself into such a convincing young man. This was an infectious and involving performance; in fact, if the others had not been so strong, Rice could easily have dominated the show. As it was, we had a very, very fine ensemble.

And in the title role, Barry Banks showing that his attractive, lyric tenor has developed hidden strengths. There was never any doubt that he would be capable of singing the role, but it is a long role and I was delighted to note that he came to the end without sounding noticeably tired. All in all a brilliant performance.

Wearing a long dark wig he cut a striking figure on stage. Having Niklausse as a boy meant that Banks's height seemed hardly to feature as noticeable. Having him sing the title role meant that we were reclaiming the role for the lighter lyric like Alfredo Kraus (whom I saw in the role at Covent Garden in the 90's), rather than the bigger dramatic voices like Domingo (who sang the role when the Covent Garden production was new). Bank's has quite a light, bright voice, not a big rich one; not that there were any balance problems, just that tonally it is full of higher, lighter elements. This gave a distinctive 'tinta' to his performance which worked well I think. This was another career defining role I would think, quite a stunning performance.

The smaller roles were all very well done; Iain Paton as Spalanzani, Graem Danby as Antonia's father, Luther (and also Giulietta's first client), Catherine Young as Antonia's mother.

3 of the students from the prologue followed Hoffmann round, watching (and participating) in each of the acts and each act started with Hoffmann and them in front of the act drop (depicting a pipe, which featured heavily in the student acts).

As usual with Jones there were little points there would seem to bear more examination. In acts 1 and 2 there was a small sculpture of a gorilla; in act 3 this became a man in a gorilla suit who crawled across the stage a few times.

The opening of act 3 was delayed by technical problems, but that did not seem to affect the performance.

The ENO orchestra, on stunning form, was conducted by Antony Walker (Australian born, now based in the USA), who had conducted the Lucia di Lammermoor here. He succeed in doing the near impossible and making the recitative version of the opera move with pace, keeping the drama and making the piece flow in a way which does not always happen.

All in all a great night in the theatre and a shame that the house was not sold out.

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