We spent last night in Zurich, where we had the chance to see the Zurich Opernhaus production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. It’s the first time I’ve been to the opera house here and the first time I’ve seen Offenbach on stage, so interesting on both counts.

David Karlin
David Karlin

The opera house is “small but perfectly formed”, as the cliché goes. It seats just 1,100, which makes it half of the size of Covent Garden and well under a third of the size of the Met. Within that space, everything is what you would wish for in a traditional European opera house, with gilt, statues and chandeliers in all the right places. It all looks in immaculate condition – you feel that Swiss have not skimped on their maintenance budgets over the years. It adds up to an evening properly in the grand operatic style, but with the smaller house size meaning that the singing is clearer and less strained. To my relief, excellent surtitles were provided in English as well as German.

On the evidence of this production, I think the Tales of Hoffmann is underrated. There’s some very lovely music, including the famous barcarolle and a raft of duets and trios, as well as Hoffmann’s mercurial tale of Kleinzach. The biggest surprise is the libretto, which is highly poetic in the style of French verse theatre and in a way that Italian and German opera rarely achieves. And there’s plenty of opportunity for a director to have fun with the staging and choreography, not least in the scene when Coppélius (one of the incarnations of Hoffmann’s nemesis) equips him with a pair or rose-tinted spectacles which cause him to fall in love with Olympia the mechanical doll, sung and acted wonderfully in this production by Sen Guo.

I thoroughly enjoyed the production: some simple and clever touches really enlivened the scene, such as the spotlight beam drawn onto a front-lit muslin curtain which gave the effect of focusing the viewer on Hoffman while putting the rest of the tavern and its patrons into soft focus. The modern costumes were fun and worked fine: I felt no need for a return to the top hats and tails of Offenbach’s day. The singing was also of uniformly high quality, with Sen Guo, Michelle Breedt as Niklausse and Vittorio Griggolo as Hoffmann providing the most sparkle. David Zinman’s conducting was competent enough, although a shade leaden at times: this is light opera and I felt it might have responded to a livelier pace.

What makes the the Tales of Hoffmann so enjoyable is that the individual tales are really good stories: madcap, inventive and just fun. So you don’t get hours of angst and dramatic agonies and you don’t need to follow the twists and turns of lengthy character studies: you get three individual tales and their framing story, each of which are accessible, slightly manic and a good escape.

The opera isn’t without its problems: Offenbach died before its completion and the opera didn’t go through a “refining in rehearsal” phase: it has been left to later Offenbach scholars to make their best efforts at turning Hoffmann into something complete and ready for the stage. This production, a 2005 version by Christophe Keck and Michael Kaye, clocked in at over 3½ hours and felt to me as if half an hour could have usefully been chopped out of various bits in the middle (mind you, I’m one of the Wagner heretics who thinks he wrote fantastic music but could have done with a good editor). There’s also a problem with casting the main soprano roles: Offenbach intended that the four incarnations of Hoffman’s lady love should be sung by the same soprano and this would certainly lend continuity to the plot. However, Offenbach’s music for the roles is of such wide variety in style and technical requirement that it presents an extreme challenge which is beyond all but a few modern sopranos. One of those who attempt it is Elena Mosuc, who was originally due to perform in last night’s production but subsequently withdrew from the programme.

But this is cavilling over details. Offenbach serves up a wonderful escapist romp with masses of fun and some lovely music, and in Zurich, you see it performed to a very high quality in the best of surroundings. If you have business there, stop by... And Hoffmann seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance just now, with productions in Paris, New York and the Prague Spring Festival: if you can get to any of these, it makes a great night out.