Catalan director Calixto Bieito has long been known for his radical interpretations of operas, often full of violence, murder, drugs and sex. So it was with a slight sense of trepidation that I went to the Norwegian National Opera’s new production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Despite some very effective and at times striking moments, the production turned out something of a disappointment.

© Erik Berg
© Erik Berg

One would imagine that an opera such as The Tales of Hoffmann, with its fantastic storylines and often grotesque imagery, would appeal to a director such as Bieito – and to a certain extent, it does. The opera becomes a drunken fantasy before reality suddenly hits hard in the final act. The Muse, Hoffmann’s guardian and poetic inspiration, constantly carries around a bottle of whiskey that she either drinks from herself or feeds to others, most notably Hoffmann’s friends in the tavern. Throughout the opera, it is almost as if we are watching her have a breakdown, before she takes off her gown and reveals herself to be nothing more than a common alcoholic.

The sets, created by Rebecca Ringst, are sparse. The prologue and epilogue are played on an empty stage with no decorations apart from lights hanging from the ceiling – a most effective touch. In the later acts, decorations are few, except for the giant stylised Venetian bridge in the Giulietta act. In Bieito’s Hoffmann, Olympia exists merely for the pleasure of others, whether it be through her “chanson mignonne” or through sex. When her aria stops, she is no longer wound up, but is instead fed some kind of drug by Spalanzani. When the effect wears off, she goes, ever smiling, on a murderous rampage ending with her taking her own life, albeit in a suicide somewhat lacking in blood. The overall effect is grotesquely humorous, yet did not seem to elicit reactions past a few awkward giggles here and there.

The fantastical nature of Hoffmann’s stories is truly brought to the forefront in the Antonia act. It is played in a white-walled box above the stage. The action has been removed from the world, and this is further underlined by the characters (save Hoffmann and Nicklausse) wearing period dress. This act was perhaps the most cohesive dramatically, possibly except for the moment when Hoffmann wrote Antonia’s name on the wall in blood after she had died. It also contained perhaps the most puzzlingly poetic sequence of the entire production, with Antonia giving birth to a live dove and that dove being given to Nicklausse, apparently on the verge of a breakdown. The following act, the Giulietta act, was perhaps the least cohesive. The characters stood before a giant steel construction, somewhat resembling a Venetian bridge. For some reason, Dapertutto was turned into a woman and the act ended with a maniacal cackle-off between Dapertutto (Dapertutta?) and Giulietta.

Singing-wise, it was also a most interesting evening. Evan Bowers, the evening’s Hoffmann, had contracted a cold and a replacement tenor, Timothy Richards, had been flown in. Bowers sang for the first two acts and acquitted himself most admirably, especially considering his illness. For the rest of the evening, Richards sang from the wings while Bowers acted the part. Richards sang well, but overall was difficult to hear due to his placement. He also disappeared completely in the ensembles. Bowers not being able to sing made it seem like he was overcompensating with some overly hysterical acting.

© Erik Berg
© Erik Berg
The three heroines (not four, as the singing part of Stella had been completely written out) were all well sung, especially Mari Eriksmoen’s scene-stealing Olympia and Nina Gravrok’s touching Olympia. Gravrok did have a tendency to sound somewhat shrill on her top notes, but she nevertheless convinced with a bright and powerful middle register. Ingeborg Gillebo’s Muse/Nicklausse was lively and engagingly characterised, and her bright yet warm voice suited the part very well. Alex Esposito’s four villains were very impressive, both in terms of characterisation and singing. He got off to a somewhat unsteady start, but improved. Especially enjoyable was his magnificently camp Dapertutto. The opera was heavily cut, all dialogue and most of the recitatives vanished, leaving a very concentrated drama, over in less than two and a half hours. The orchestra, conducted by Stefan Blunier, seemed to emphasise the melodic and more amusing sides of Offenbach’s music, often creating a rather macabre contrast with what was happening on stage.

Bieito’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann never quite convinced. Despite some lovely moments, the production overall seemed somewhat under-rehearsed and at times gratuitous in its imagery. While the singing was good for the most part, Bieito’s vision is one that demands much from the singers in terms of acting, and unfortunately, the cast did not quite pull it off.