The Tales of Hoffman actually calls itself an opéra fantastique, however, it’s just as comique as tragique and is therefore a veritable feast for directors looking for a challenge. For the Volksoper, Renaud Doucet and his designer André Barbe have concocted a courageous mix which is certainly colourful but by no means harmless: in the end, the devil has his finger in every pie.

Juliette Mars (Muse/Nicklaus), Beate Ritter (Olympia), Karl-Michael Ebner (Andres/Spalanzani) © Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Juliette Mars (Muse/Nicklaus), Beate Ritter (Olympia), Karl-Michael Ebner (Andres/Spalanzani)
© Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien

The starting point for this concept is not just the work itself, but also its mysterious fate: after all, just before the first performance of the work in 1881, the Vienna Ringtheater burnt down, with the loss of around 400 lives; in 1887, the sheet music for the orchestra was lost in another fire at the Opéra-Comique. This staging evokes those fires with soot-covered proscenium, including loges. Within this framework, the stories of Hoffmann’s love life were played out, of which the Antonia tale should be noted as exemplary: in an icy chamber à la Doctor Zhivago, we see Antonia’s mother (the solid Martina Mikelić) as the girl coming out of the cake, or rather of a kind of iceberg; in the events that follow, Antonia is sort of conducted to death by a horde of dinner-jacketed zombies sporting Simon Rattle hairstyles and swinging luminous batons.

Kristiane Kaiser (Giulietta), Juliette Mars (Muse/Niklaus), Mirko Roschinski (Hoffmann) and Chorus © Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Kristiane Kaiser (Giulietta), Juliette Mars (Muse/Niklaus), Mirko Roschinski (Hoffmann) and Chorus
© Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
If that sounds bizarre to you, it certainly is. Nonetheless, this staging works thanks to ingenious acting direction, in which each action gives way to the next. Like a red thread, we imagine Offenbach as an escort to the work who pops up erratically, but this trick (which only reveals itself at the end) wasn't absolutely necessary: the colourful images were held together anyway through the everlasting themes of love and death, that is to say Eros (much naked flesh or, at any rate, skin-coloured body suits) and Thanatos (a death’s head). In the Giulietta act, these two themes were melded spectacularly in the shape of shapely dancers clad in bikinis made of death’s heads. So is that devilishly sexy, an Isolde's Liebestod 2.0, or is it the ultimate passion-killer? I’ll leave that for you to decide. In any cast, one can do worse than to give this staging a chance and allow oneself to be convinced that what seems foolish doesn’t have to be foolish at all, and that the sensible rule of “less is more” may not be without its exceptions.

The title role of Hoffmann isn't just long, it also needs a tenor with a big range and ability to sing in different voices: lightness and flexibility are required in the beginning; lyrical smoothness in the Antonia act, dramatic power in the Giulietta act – it’s a role that pushes even star tenors to their limits. So Mirko Roschkowski came as a pleasant surprise, with an agreeably bright voice which contrasted with the appearance of a friendly bear. Roschkowski impressed with good technique, solid high notes and clever dynamic control; he also delivered the big phrases with apparent effortlessness.

Josef Wagner (Lindorf/Coppélius/Doktor Mirakel/Dapertutto) © Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Josef Wagner (Lindorf/Coppélius/Doktor Mirakel/Dapertutto)
© Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Unquestionably, he was responsible for the lion’s share of the success of the evening, although the audience was almost as struck by Beate Ritter, whose Olympia was a virtuoso performance out of the top drawer: between squeaky laughs and sexy groans, she delivered the most challenging coloratura right on the nail, and crowned it all with a top A flat thrown out with nonchalance – and all this in an outfit which looking something like the outcome of Dr. Frankenstein making a sex puppet out of suspender-wearing rag doll limbs and giant breasts. Anyway, the overall impression was not of this world and conjured up the loudest cheers I can remember in this theatre.

The nuanced conducting of Gerrit Prießnitz was the third pillar holding up the evening of music. There must have been a great deal of hard work put into the preparation by all concerned, in that the German translation was very much in keeping with the French original. Additional help was provided by the idea (from dramaturg Christoph Wagner-Trenkwitz) of permitting several of the numbers to be sung in French (those with an interlude-like character, like the Barcarolle and Olympia's aria).

Other contributors to the performance were Juliette Mars as an agile Muse/Niklausse and Anja-Nina Bahrmann as a sweet-sounding Antonia; amongst the men, Stefan Cerny’s powerful bass provided an outstanding performance of Luther and Krespel. But the evening would have been even better if Josef Wagner, in the role of the four villains, had been somewhat more deep-voiced and demonic. Also, the generally dependable Kristiane Kaiser isn’t an ideal fit for the role of Giulietta; she made her tenor’s life harder than it needed to be with the volume of her voice. In sum, though, reviewing this from a high level; the Volksoper should definitely be proud that with this première, they have provided a convincing proof of their variety: this Hoffmann has no need to fear comparison with any “pure” opera house.

Anja-Nina Bahrmann (Antonia), Stefan Cerny (Luther/Crespel) © Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Anja-Nina Bahrmann (Antonia), Stefan Cerny (Luther/Crespel)
© Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien

At the curtain calls, much cheering for all and only a small amount of booing for the production team. To the booers, I would like to say this: for many “pretty” stagings that one sees, most of the staging is forgotten after a few years. This staging will stay longer in the memory: it’s just to be hoped that its punkish wit won’t wear off in years to come.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin, with assistance from the author