Sunday, 3 March 2019

Offenbach 200: celebrating Cologne's most famous son

Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann for children - Young Woo Kim (Hoffmann), Arnheidur Eiríksdóttir (Muse), Kathrin Zukowski (Antonia) - Opera Cologne (Photo © Matthias Jung)
Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann for children - Young Woo Kim (Hoffmann), Arnheidur Eiríksdóttir (Muse), Kathrin Zukowski (Antonia) - Opera Cologne (Photo © Matthias Jung)
As this year marks the 200th birthday of Cologne’s most-famous son, Jacques (Jakob) Offenbach, Opera Cologne is focusing on the birthday boy as never before. Tony Cooper reports

Jacques Offenbach
Jacques Offenbach in the 1860s
The ‘Offenbach Year’ at Opera Cologne began in the first month of this year with a compact family version of The Tales of Hoffmann performed by members of the International Opera Studio and Opera Cologne Ensemble under the baton of Rainer Mühlbach. Set to a French libretto by Jules Barbier and based on three short stories by ETA Hoffmann, the protagonist of the story, it turned out to be Offenbach’s final work. He died in October 1880, four months before the work’s première.

Not only a brilliant artist and a great inventor of characters, ETA Hoffmann was also a dreamer. In his world, nightmares and reality blur, figures from his life appear to him in a distorted form in his sleep. And like any great artist, he can only survive the adventures of his fantasy world in the company of his muse who supports him on his journey between dreams and reality.

Kai Anne Schumacher not only created the staging but also the puppets which the performers brought to life in an impressive fusion of opera and puppetry to the amazement of audience members - young and old.

However, the première of La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein (an opéra-bouffe in three acts) promises a great treat. The first performance on Sunday 9th June at the StaatenHaus, Opera Cologne’s temporary home while the renovation of their opera-house on Offenbachplatz (well behind schedule and way over budget) is now projected to be ready in autumn 2022.

Under the musical direction of François-Xavier Roth (with staging by Renaud Doucet) La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein states everything that makes an Offenbach operetta so special, accessible and appealing such as the sparkling melodies, acerbic wit and cleverly-concealed erotic nuances.

Opera Cologne will also present the world première of a production actually on the construction site of the opera-house on Offenbachplatz namely Je suis Jacques by Christian von Götz. A cheeky, anarchic piece, it pays close attention to Offenbach, the theatrical genius, whose work still astounds with its progressive attitude and provocative desire for freedom.

Surprisingly, several of Offenbach’s strongest works, however, remain relatively unknown and, in this respect, Opera Cologne will be presenting a host of duets, couplets and ensembles from pieces rarely (or never seen) in Germany. For instance, an incredibly-strong duet from Les trois baisers du diable (an opéra-fantastique dating from 1857) will receive its first performance.

Georg Kehren, head dramaturg of Opera Cologne, said: ‘The Cologne-Paris axis already exists here. It is embodied in our French-born conductor, François-Xavier Roth, who’ll roll out a sparkling musical carpet highlighted by a new production of  La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein in June - the actual month of the composer’s birth.

‘The audience needs to be prepared for many Offenbachian references to the present. This current relevance is also to be found in Barkouf, a valuable rediscovery that will receive its Cologne première in October as part of a co-production with Strasbourg. Barkouf (an opéra-bouffe in three acts premièred in 1860) enjoyed a well-received première at the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg in December of last year, earning high praise from the public and press alike.’

Dr Birgit Meyer, Artistic Director of Opera Cologne, said: ‘The music in Offenbach’s works is incredibly varied. I always adore the raw emotion that it evokes. At the same time, it is refined and bears the signature of an excellent theatre-maker and connoisseur. Offenbach wrote with the individual evening at the theatre always at the forefront of his mind. He was a feverishly prolific composer who worked not only as a director but also as a conductor as well. Many of his works are no longer familiar to us. Therefore, in this respect, the ‘Offenbach Year’ should help to jog one’s memory of this wonderful and entertaining composer while the première of ‘Je suis Jacques’ at the construction site on Offenbachplatz offers a very special tribute to the great man in his special birthday year.’
Cologne
Cologne: the cathedral, the Hohenzollern Bridge and the river Rhine

Check out the full programme of OFFENBACH 200 by visiting www.yeswecancan.koeln

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