When an enormous black gondola creaks and shudders its way across the stage in the “Giulietta" act of the Royal Opera's The Tales of Hoffmann, it acts as a metaphor for John Schlesinger's venerable production. Designed on the grandest of scales, opulently costumed, it's often sumptuous to the eye, but there's a fusty, museum air hanging over this revival, with its prompt box and lengthy set changes. The company's probably right to retire it after this run, though it might have hoped for a more spirited performance to send it to the operatic knacker's yard.
Part of the problem lay in the pit, where Evelino Pidò's pedestrian approach didn't breathe much life into the very full score, chorus and orchestra drifting apart more than once. Issues surrounding performing editions are thorny, but suffice to report that the Schirmer edition of the score was used (with the addition of Nicklausse's “violin aria”), meaning we got a good deal of music, not all of it by Offenbach (the Venetian act septet) and not all of it originally intended for Hoffmann (“Scintille diamant”). When the music is so glorious, though, it's difficult to begrudge the evening's length.
William Dudley's three-storey set and Maria Björnson’s costumes are lavish. A vaulted cellar plays host to revellers who listen to the wretched Hoffmann recount tales of his three great loves while waiting for the performance of Don Giovanni next door to finish so they can greet its diva, Stella. The Olympia act is phantasmagorical, a mad inventor’s workshop, with Coppélius’ coat secreting all manner of glass eyes – a real spectacle. The Giulietta act is the stuff of Cecil B de Mille, decadent Venice bedecked in vermillion drapes. The (comparative) simplicity of the Antonia act – the young singer who loves Hoffmann, but is forbidden from singing by her father due to her mystery illness – works best of the three.
Performances were mixed, none more so than Vittorio Grigòlo in the title role. His Hoffmann was often in excellent voice, his bright tenor leaping across the footlights with clarion ease, if tripped up by the odd vocal lunge. He was also capable of reining it in to a honeyed pianissimo. If only someone – revival director Daniel Dooner? – was capable of reining in Grigòlo’s ham acting; desperately over-the-top as the inebriated poet drowning his sorrows, bounding around Olympia like a puppy. He doesn’t do subtle. If he didn’t quite kiss the stage during his curtain call, he got down on one knee and more or less proposed to it.
Thomas Hampson played Hoffmann’s dastardly nemesis in each act with moustache-twirling glee. Vocally, the roles are a stretch for the baritone, low notes sounding hollow, and some of Dr Miracle’s part – creepily acted – was snarled. He approached the top note in Dappertutto’s “Scintille diamant” gingerly, just about reaching the summit. Kate Lindsey excelled as Hoffmann’s sidekick Nicklausse, although her role as the Muse in the blink-or-you-miss-it start to the Prologue isn’t clearly defined. Lindsey displayed a trim coloratura and trill, including a wicked Olympia impression, and glints of steel in her supple mezzo in Nicklausse's aria “C'est l'amour vainqueur”.
Rather than assign the role of Hoffmann’s lovers to the one soprano, three singers were effectively employed. Sofia Fomina found a cold mechanical tone for the doll Olympia, even if her coloratura didn't quite tick with clockwork precision. Christine Rice vamped it up as the glamorous courtesan, Giulietta, her plum-rich mezzo contrasted with Lindsey’s lighter voice in the famous Barcarolle. Best of all was Sonya Yoncheva, in radiant form as Antonia, her lustrous soprano and keen dramatic instincts contributing to a gripping scene, aided by the excellent Catherine Carby as the voice of her mother, and Eric Halfvarson as her protective father, Crespel.
Among the myriad minor roles, Vincent Ordonneau deserves credit for fleshing out the four servants well, his deaf-as-a-post Frantz being especially fun. Yuriy Yurchuk presented a particularly oily Schlemil (and proved a dapper swordsman).
After the Antonia act, an orchestral reprise of the Barcarolle feels like a filler – it just about enables the set change – and the epilogue no more than an afterthought. The ending, the Muse having persuaded Hoffmann to abandon love and put pen to paper, felt downbeat, the curtain falling so hesitantly that the muted audience response was understandable. With a bit more fire in Pidò’s belly, the dust sheets over Schlesinger’s production might just be shed more successfully later in the run.
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