Saturday 24 October 2015

Offenbach - Tales of Hoffmann (ETO, 2015 - Buxton)

Jacques Offenbach - Tales of Hoffmann

English Touring Opera, 2015

Philip Sunderland, James Bonas, Sam Furness, Ilona Domnich, Warwick Fyfe, Louise Mott, Tim Dawkins, Adam Tunnicliffe, Matt R J Ward, Ashley Mercer

English Touring Opera, Buxton - 17 October 2015

The reason for the popularity of The Tales of Hoffmann is no mystery. It's a work that has some dazzling opportunities for singing, it has some of the most memorable melodies in all of opera, and not just one, but three adventures to enjoy. Personally however, despite the best efforts of Offenbach to construct a coherent narrative out of the various stories of ETA Hoffmann and impose a structure that interlinks them, I find that it's a bit of a mess of an opera that more often than not leaves me cold. Perhaps though I just haven't seen the right production.

No matter what I think, Tales of Hoffmann remains popular with opera companies and directors who relish the challenge and the fun of staging the imaginative and colourful adventures, and it remains popular with audiences. It was undoubtedly the best attended show of the current English Touring Opera programme - more popular Pelléas et Mélisande and Werther - when I caught the tour in Buxton. And indeed the ETO do make a more convincing case for the work, enlivening its humour without taking away from its darkness, highlighting the qualities of the work and mitigating against its weaknesses. I'm still not totally convinced that Les Contes de Hoffmann is a great opera, but it can at least be an entertaining one.

A large part of the problem with the opera I find is that neither Hoffmann as a character nor his stories make a whole lot of sense. They are very much of their time; an incomprehensible blend of maudlin High Romantic sentiments and bizarre situations with obscure psychological and psychosexual underpinnings. In Olympia, Hoffmann is gripped by a blind lust for automaton; in Antonia, a girl is singing herself to death; and in Giulietta, a siren lures men to their destruction, stealing their souls through a mirror. Offenbach ties all the works together well, finding commonality behind the heroines, the villains and the Hoffmann figure in them, but it still takes some effort to pull this together into a coherent and convincing whole.

Director James Bonas finds a good way to make this old-fashioned demi-monde tale of high melodrama relatable; through the movies. He imagines Hoffmann not as a writer, but as a film screenwriter of silent movies in an age where the talkies threaten to bring an edge of unwelcome reality to his imaginative fantasies. His heavy drinking and unrequited love for his leading lady, Stella, leads him to blur the lines between his reality and that of his imagination; Olympia becoming a Frankenstein-like creation; Antonia the victim of a vampire in a Dracula movie; Giulietta seen in terms of a Man in the Mirror distortion of reality. Seen in this light, in a nostalgic silent movie context, the stories don't seem quite so ridiculous as the ravings of a disturbed mind.

The silent movie/early talkie/Universal horror mise-en-scène also relates perfectly as an equivalent for the nature of Offenbach's opera itself. Considered as Offenbach's only real opera - his other vast body of work being classified more as opéra-comique operetta - places an expectation on The Tales of Hoffmann that I don't think the work lives up to. True, the work remained unfinished at the time of the composer's death, ìt has some darker undercurrents and it is a more sophisticated work from Offenbach, but it remains essentially an opéra-comique. It should not be taken too seriously, and too often it is. Not so here with the English Touring Opera's production.

Oliver Townsend's sets are wonderful, transforming cleanly from one piece to the next while retaining a consistent style, the imaginative use of lighting and occasional projections giving them all the individual distinction and mood they need. Sung in English, in a superbly witty translation, the humour is played upon much more than the Romantic melodrama, bringing the right kind of emphasis to the material. The dark moments are there too and it can be quite violent, but again it fits with the horror-movie theme and doesn't feel quite as jarring and, frankly, as unreasonably disturbing as it often does in other productions.

Sung in English moreover with a reduced orchestral arrangement reveals that, despite Offenbach's aspirations to grand opéra, Tales of Hoffmann is more closely related to Gilbert and Sullivan, the production reminding me on more than one occasion particularly of Opera North's production of Ruddigore a few years ago. No wonder that the Buxton audience - where the G&S Festival was a fixture for some time - enjoyed it so much. And rightly so. This Tales of Hoffmann was as lively, bright and entertaining as Offenbach without the pretensions ought to be. Perhaps that's the key to getting to grips with this work.

Good singers help too of course and this one was has an engaging cast who gave strong performances, helped no doubt by the excellent characterisation in James Bonas's direction. In line with the adjustment of emphasis the reason the production worked so successfully was undoubtedly largely down to the terrific performances of Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe in the roles of Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr Miracle/Dappertutto. He completely inhabited the roles with silent movie swirling capes and gothic melodrama that retained an edge of danger, his fine resonant singing however giving the roles much more dimension.

Everyone however equally threw themselves wholeheartedly into the roles. Keith Lemon lookalike Sam Furness was a driven Hoffmann, lyrical and fully involved in the proceedings. Ilona Domnich too had great presence in the various incarnations of the woman of intrigue, Stella. The power wasn't always there, but she took on some of the most challenging singing in any opera very well indeed with a lovely voice, interacting particularly well with the others on stage. This was another strong part of the production, involving all of the supporting roles in a true ensemble fashion, keeping the action on the stage fresh, exciting and inventive, with something to enjoy at every moment.

Links: English Touring Opera