One of the questions this opera poses for any director is how to link the 'tales' of Hoffmann's three lost loves together and knit them satisfactorily into the Prologue and Epilogue. For this new production which travels to English National Opera next February, Richard Jones solves the puzzle by turning it into an autobiographical journey which ends with a grand meet-up of all the characters Hoffmann has encountered.

Diana Damrau as Olympia, Rolando Villazon as Hoffmann © Wilfried Hösl
Diana Damrau as Olympia, Rolando Villazon as Hoffmann
© Wilfried Hösl

Hoffmann is not the rollicking kind of drunken story-spinner we usually see, but a sad-eyed, sobered-up depressive, who reaches for the bottle only because his disastrous love life has gone wrong yet again. The vision is seemingly tailor-made for Rolando Villazon, who forgoes the crazed antics he's better known for and plays Hoffmann like the clown without his makeup.

In short pants, he encounters the doll Olympia, a cross between Dusty Springfield the 60s cult toy Sindy, at a Disney-styled children's birthday party. The adult chorus squeeze grotesquely into party frocks, sailor suits and ankle socks. His next love, Antonia, is a droopy long-haired hippy, with a gold disc on the wall to remember her singer mother by. Finally Giulietta is a hard-edged tattooed prostitute with an Amy Winehouse updo. She collects souls for her pimp Dappertutto using a giant shaving mirror, which peels off men's faces so they can be kept in a jar. Academics and operagoers alike debate which episode should come first - Antonia or Giulietta. Taking the minority position, Jones shows us how romantic fantasy, true love and finally just basic physical satisfaction all fail Hoffmann.

Hoffmann's Muse, Nicklausse, is a short-trousered doppelganger of the poet, a reminder that Hoffman's inspiration emerges from childhood memories (as anyone who's seen other Richard Jones productions might believe of the the director himself). The multiple villains are neatly underplayed by John Relyea - the depressive Hoffmann creates his own misfortune. And he repeats his mistakes over and over again, as the identical layout of each of Giles Cadle's colourful, expressionistic sets underlines.

Musically, the evening is as downbeat as the morning after. While Rolando Villazon's performance is dramatically unimpeachable, he is still struggling to overcome the the hangover of his recent vocal health problems. They've left him with a dry, pinched timbre and a limited range of vocal colours. His bottled sound struggled against the volume of the orchestra, though a few rare flights into open-voiced glory offered a glimpse of greater capabilities. Under the baton of Constantinos Carydis, the orchestra sounded as depressed as the hero, about as sparkling as yesterday's champagne.

The undoubted star of the evening was soprano Diana Damrau, who bravely took on all three of the heroines. More often allocated to three different singers on account of the different challenges they pose, the roles tested Damrau's range, power, flexibility and tonal variety. Sporting a fuller, darker sound since the recent birth of her first child, she passed with flying colours. Now that's worth raising a glass to.

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