Jacques Offenbach - Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Teatro Real, Madrid, 2014
Sylvain Cambreling, Christoph Marthaler, Vito Priante, Christoph Homberger, Anne Sofie von Otter, Eric Cutler, Ana Durlovski, Measha Brueggergosman, Altea Garrido, Lani Poulson, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Gerardo Lopez, Tomeu Bibiloni, Isaac Galán
ARTE Concert - 21 May 2014
Les Contes d'Hoffmann is an 'opéra fantastique', but there's not much that's fantastical about Christoph Marthaler's version of Offenbach's most ambitious work in this production at the Teatro Real in Madrid. He certainly lets his imagination run riot with the concept, filling the stage with all sorts of antics and goings-on, but nothing really comes together or even seems to relate at all to what the work is about.
I must confess however that I've never been convinced that The Tales of Hoffmann has anything much worth making a fuss about anyway. I love Offenbach's comic operas, the brilliance of the wit, the daring of the satire and the entertaining, dazzling melodies, but the composer's only fully-fledged opera leaves me cold. I can appreciate Offenbach's musical sophistication here and how it's put to the service of the drama, even if it doesn't make a great impression, but I find the plots of Hoffmann's tales convoluted and tedious with little that reveals or provides insight into any genuine human values.
Which is a bit of a problem when the plot that has been drawn from assorted stories of E. T. Hoffmann are all supposed to examine the three great loves of his protagonist's life and the tragedy of their circumstances. As such, I have no objection to a director looking elsewhere for new areas of interest in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, or indeed playing up the fantastical nature of the work. Christoph Marthaler's production - one of the last legacies of the adventurous final term of the late Gérard Mortier at the Teatro Real - unfortunately only takes the work further away from whatever human experience might be found in it, and rather than find magic in it only adds greater confusion to an already convoluted storyline.
Worse than that, Marthaler's direction actually makes a slight but entertaining work feel long and very dull indeed. If you take the time to think about the production, there is actually an underlying theme in the setting, the whole opera with its diverse stories all taking place in a modern centre for the arts. That seems like a good place to unify the theatrical, the dramatic, the artistic and the creative imagination, but instead the stage is rather cluttered with art students sketching a series of nude models who pose and recline, while other characters wander around, fall about and randomly take up positions on the stage, many of them manipulated for some unknown reason by a remote control.
There's an awful lot going on but none of it makes any sense or relates to any familiar view of the work, none of it is interesting or entertaining to watch, and - what must be the bottom line - little of it really serves to enhance the work. If the production fails there's no question where the fault lies then, since the performers really do make the best of what they've been given to work with here. Ann Sophie von Otter, for example, is asked to interpret Hoffmann's Muse and Nicklausse as one and the same - a kind of drunken sprite who dances merrily around as Hoffmann's guide and protector. Von Otter enters fully into the spirit of the role, but the strength of her voice has declined a little in recent years. The singing and interpretation are characteristically warm, delicate and beautiful, but there's no longer any force behind it and she does occasionally become lost in the blend of voices and music.
Eric Cutler also does well within the confines of a character without any real personality who isn't given much to work with by the director either. His singing is clear, flowing and lyrical, but with very little feeling behind it - a problem, as I say, I would associate partly with the nature of the work itself. Vito Priante has one of the richest roles in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, playing the combined roles of Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dappertutto, but he also fails to make any real impact, playing them all as the same character (which they essentially are) with no costume changes, but he doesn't have the necessary presence or enough character in the voice for the part.
The best thing about Les Contes d'Hoffmann, and certainly the best thing about this production, is the sparkle that the Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta characters bring to the work. More commonly performed by one singer in all the roles - and consequently one of the most challenging soprano roles in all opera - the casting here proved that there's much to be gained from using different voices for the very different demands of each of the parts. Soprano Ana Durlovski impressively sings Olympia as a sad, timid figure rather than a showpiece diva and it's all the better for it, finding the tragic nature of the character in one who, ironically, isn't even human. Equipped with a deeper soprano voice, Measha Brueggergosman took on the roles of Antonia and Giulietta - two sides of the same coin? - and filled them with fire and personality. Her voice didn't always hold firm, but she was particularly impressive in Antonia's duet with Eric Cutler's Hoffmann.
That fire was particularly welcome when there was so much tedium elsewhere. Despite the busyness of Act I, this was mostly a static production with little in the way of effects, little in the way of creative imagination and certainly little that could be described as fantastical. There's a surprising amount of standing around singing and there's not a great deal of life in Sylvain Cambreling's conducting either. Cambreling has a long track record with this work, but in the context of this production the interpretation of the score just felt lifeless and uninspired. This was not a performance, or indeed a production to win over anyone unconvinced about the merits of Offenbach's great unfinished project.
Links: ARTE Concert