No colourful tavern scenes and Venetian gondolas in this new Amsterdam production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Off-white and black dominate its three-floor set of many rooms. Moreover, this three-hour version assembled by conductor Carlo Rizzi and director Tobias Kratzer is likely to dissatisfy both purists and traditionalists. Offenbach died before finishing the opera and the history of its many versions is like an archeological layer cake, from which Rizzi and Kratzer have selectively unearthed current critical editions to relate a story of psychological inadequacy and obsession. Knowledge of previous versions could be a hindrance to enjoying theirs: they’ve abridged the recitatives, kept spoken dialogue to a minimum and left out all numbers not written by Offenbach, including the popular villain’s aria “Scintille, diamant” and the septet. The result is a dark cautionary tale performed by a first-rate cast and orchestra. At the première, maestro Rizzi conducted with elegance and momentum and both the house chorus and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra were at their superlative best.

© Baus
© Baus
Instead of in a tavern, Hoffmann, artist and alcoholic, narrates his past affairs with Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta from his bedroom at the centre of the set. It is festooned with portraits of his current obsession, the opera singer Stella. The chorus sing their drinking songs offstage. Hoffmann’s audience consists of his boozing buddies and his neglected girlfriend, the Muse. She spends a lot of time in his flat, picking up empty beer bottles and fretting about measuring up to his other women. In a deviation from the libretto, she doesn’t transmogrify into Hoffmann’s pal Nicklausse and back again. The “tales”, in sinister retellings by Kratzer, play out in the adjoining rooms, with singers sometimes singing duets on either side of a wall or on different floors.
Nina Minasyan (Olympia) © Baus
Nina Minasyan (Olympia)
© Baus

In the final Stella Act, Stella never appears. Her three aspects, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, sing her lines, leaving Hoffmann free to dedicate himself to his Muse. But his compulsions have made him sink so low that he may have lost her. As drawn by the superb tenor John Osborn, a portrait of the deeply flawed Hoffmann emerges in full relief and justifies all editorial and directorial decisions.

John Osborn (Hoffmann), Ermonela Jaho (Antonia) © Baus
John Osborn (Hoffmann), Ermonela Jaho (Antonia)
© Baus
Osborn spanned the expressive spectrum of the role, from the cruel humour of the Kleinzach aria to the lyrical blaze of the love duet with Antonia. His stylistic choices were impeccable, as was his French diction. Gratifyingly, he also threw in the odd interpolated top note. A fine vocal actor, he was most impressive in disillusionment and despair, as when Hoffmann discovers that Olympia is not human. Here she is something much more repulsive than a doll. Like Victor Frankenstein, Spalanzani, an effective, if rather dry-voiced Rodolphe Briand, has engendered a humanoid. An attic full, in fact, of eyeless underage girls. Olympia, fitted with eyes by the grisly Coppélius, is his masterpiece, ready for sexual exploitation. Nina Minasyan played the terrified creature to perfection and delivered a technically airtight doll aria. Her light, agile soprano is surprisingly round and carries far. Olympia’s disturbingly young age and Antonia’s schoolgirl outfit indicate that Hoffmann is incapable of relating to psychologically mature women. As the frail Antonia, doomed to die if she sings, soprano Ermonela Jaho sang with liquid tone and heartbreaking fragility. The illness she inherits from her mother, appealingly voiced by Eva Kroon, is mental rather than physical.

Erwin Schrott (Dappertutto), Christine Rice (Giulietta) © Baus
Erwin Schrott (Dappertutto), Christine Rice (Giulietta)
© Baus

Hoffmann’s inability to form authentic relationships is confirmed in the Giulietta episode, in which the courtesan operates from a dimly lit den of vice dressed as a mermaid, and is therefore not quite a real woman. Trailing long, blonde tresses, Christine Rice was a vocally and physically voluptuous Giulietta, her earthiness complementing the slender sound of Irene Roberts as the Muse in the Barcarolle. Rice also brought off the coloratura in “L’amour lui dit: la belle!”. Kratzer has chosen the ending in which Hoffmann kills both of Giulietta’s lovers, Schlémil and Pitichinaccio, and he convincingly reinterprets the theft of Hoffmann’s reflection at the behest of the evil Captain Dapertutto as Giulietta getting him addicted to drugs. I wouldn’t know if running a mermaid brothel and producing new drug addicts is any fun, but bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, singing the four villains for the first time, made it look like a blast. He embodied debonair malevolence and was at his most gruesomely mesmerising as a deathly pale Doctor Miracle. Beautifully and forcefully sung, this addition to Schrott’s repertoire is bound to become one of his most memorable roles. Onstage for most of the performance, Irene Roberts was a likeable Muse. Her middle register sounded a bit matt at first, but filled out later on, aligning with her bright top. All supporting performances were commendable, with sonorous bass-baritone Paul Gay standing out as Antonia’s father and tenor Sunnyboy Dladla turning Frantz’s aria into a comedic gem. Nothing ends well in this Hoffmann, but everything is done extremely well.