Saturday 11 February 2012

ENO's The Tales of Hoffmann, or in which Offenbach falls at the first hurdle

One of my vices is that I am a completionist. I had not previously seen Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and I will always try and see an opera I haven't seen before at least once. Unfortunately, this one proves to be for me an opera I don't feel any need to see again in a hurry. Thus, although I also thought there were some musical and production issues it was the work itself which I think was most at fault.

The big problem with this opera is that it fails the first Dr Pollard test for a great work of art. That is it pretty completely failed to make me care about the fate of any of the protagonists. For those of you unfamiliar with the work it is about the poet Hoffmann's unfortunate romances. I think, if I have understood it correctly, he is in love (unsuccessfully) with a lady by the name of Stella who wanders around to not much purpose at the start and the end. To explain this love he tells three fantastic tales about three other women (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta). Apart from the poor consumptive Antonia in Act II I found it all uninvolving. I suppose it's possible that it is trying to say some deep things about the madnesses of love but it did not come across to me here.

Beyond the plotline the work is also not helped by either music or libretto. I found both rather dull. The text didn't help convince me of the sincerity of the characters emotions, the music is a bit drearily the same from start to finish, though I don't think it was helped by Antony Walker's conducting to which we shall return.

So what of the performers themselves. Fortunately, there is some very fine singing on offer here. The stand out for me was Christine Rice as Hoffmann's muse/Nicklausse. Her vocal tone was beautifully rich and nearly every word was enunciated clearly. Also very strong was Barry Banks as Hoffmann. There was the occasional moment of pressure but generally speaking the tone was ringing, and the voice sounded bigger and more powerful than I had remembered. His diction also was generally very good. About Georgia Jarman who sang Hoffmann's four women (this is apparently not usual) I was not as convinced. In fairness she was able to sing it all but I think the combination of my disaffection with respect to the score and a kind of slightly harsh element to the voice meant that the performance was just not one for me. Nobody else especially stood out for me among the principals. Clive Bayley playing the four Devil-led characters had some nice moments but the staging didn't it seemed to me allow him the necessary degree of menace and villainy, and up in the Balcony he sometimes disappeared under the orchestra.

Turning to the orchestra and chorus there are still a few issues. In Act One pit and stage were not always together, and I had a general feeling that Walker's direction was lacking in a bit of essential sharpness. The Chorus also really has got to work on diction – most of the time it was impossible to tell what they were singing about. Finally, I don't know what the idea was behind what sounded like amplification at the end, but the effect on the sound in the Balcony was very odd and it ought to be revisited. The orchestral sound was generally fine, but there was a sluggishness to Walker's tempi and a general lack of that sense of electricity which the best live playing has which did not help to sell the score.

And finally we come to the production. Again I will lay my cards on the table. I am not generally a Richard Jones fan. I can think of two productions which I thought were really excellent – the original London Into the Woods and the Royal Opera's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Recently things of his I've seen have struck me as serviceable but unexciting and it was much the same last night. He significantly shrinks the Coliseum stage by having the action take place in a single room with a corridor running away down the left hand side (from the audience perspective). It isn't quite as pointless a corridor as the one in the National's Rocket to the Moon but it does try. There's little variation in the set across the three acts beyond changing the wallpaper, the contents of the bureau, and as one of my followers on twitter pointed out to me last night extending various items of furniture (so for example the bed and the shaving mirror become larger in the last act) – I couldn't really see what this was supposed to signify but like much else in the staging it didn't particularly grab me. It also puzzled me what could possibly have occasioned the technical hitch which delayed the start of Act 3 since the set appeared largely unchanged from the previous act. The only other thing of note about the production was the man in the gorilla suit who cavorts about on the stage for much of Act 3. Apparently there was a toy gorilla lying about on the stage during Act Two – this completely escaped me up in the Gods and once again the point of this bit of business escaped me.

Evidently some people find much more to love in this opera than I, but for me the evening was proof of two things. First, that some fine singing alone does not great opera make. Second, that once again the Coliseum and its partner house (this time the Bayerische Staatsoper) have lavished resources on a rather undeserving work.

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