An old adage goes around among opera lovers that the perfect Violetta in Verdi’s Traviata would be sung by three different sopranos, one for each act. Imagine then what would happen if an opera incorporated not just one, but several storylines – and not in the form of your usual subplots, but rather as detailed, well-developed scenarios which have but the same cast and a general theme in common. Haphazard and muddled? Quite the opposite, if said opera rests in the ingenious hands of Jacques Offenbach. A long-time audience favourite, the composer’s unrevised masterwork Les Contes d’Hoffmann had one final run of performances at the Deutsche Oper Berlin before the close of the season. For the occasion the theatre revived Laurent Pelly’s veteran staging, which premiered in Lausanne in 2003 and has since then known good fortune. On the podium was also an old acquaintance of the score, French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, whose career includes several productions of the opera, proving – not unlike the fictional Hoffmann with his beloved – a persistent, indefatigable fascination with it.
Drawing on the products of ETA Hoffmann’s dark, unquiet imagination, Les Contes d’Hoffmann – tellingly described as an opéra-fantastique – takes the shape of a recurring nightmare, whose dreadful compulsion to repeat is heightened, rather than sugar-coated, by Offenbach’s seemingly exuberant music. And yet, presented with this series of ghastly visions, the public sits hypnotised, as the gears turn and the story unfolds. Arguably, few operas portray and recreate the charm of narration as effectively as Hoffmann does, its literary inclination providing audiences and directors alike with much room for imagination. The lucid yet loose logic of ETA Hoffmann’s fictional world translates into a work that has proved apt for wildly inventive stagings.
Pelly steers clear of most visual extravaganza, granting little to the sheer spectacle that the opera may elicit. In his mind, Hoffmann is more of a brain-teaser puzzle than a kaleidoscope, a mechanism whose workings, like those of an Escher lithograph, are at once evident and elusive. His favoured tavern reduced to no more than a hat rack and some benches, Hoffmann relives his misfortunes in just-as-bare moving sceneries that suggest intricacy, mystery and anguish. A detached, artificial atmosphere saturates the stage, compromising even the most genuine moments with what feels like an all-too-self-aware, if not openly disillusioned grimace. This becomes particularly apparent when Hoffmann’s love interests appear on stage, Olympia being visibly manoeuvred by a crane as she puts on her charming little show for her father’s guests. Indeed, by revealing the very processes of stage setting, Pelly exposes not only the tools of narration, but also the artificiality of concepts such as femininity and desire, which often derive from a specific, not fully reliable point of view. In this sense, the staging emphasises how – as the Romantic artist that he is – Hoffmann’s entire world is his own construct, including perhaps the destructive forces which he believes are sabotaging him.
Although persuasive, such a stern approach seems to neglect the other significant side of Offenbach’s creation – the sensuous wonder which emanates from its music, rescuing the tales from absolute, dismal tragedy. Villaume’s conducting only partially compensated for this. Especially in the first half of the opera, his unvarying, fairly slow tempi and uniform dynamics deprived the score of a part of its appeal. If such regular, unaltered pace might have served as reliable accompaniment to the singers, its effect on the listeners was maybe less convenient and somewhat monotonous. As a result, the performance was most convincing when Offenbach’s score required deeper plunges in both the dynamic and metronomic spectrum. That notwithstanding, Villaume drew a pleasant, soft tone from the orchestra, achieving distinctive consistency.