Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann received a makeover Wednesday night in the world première performance of Anne Champert’s adaptation, Hoffmann. Eschewing the traditional for the phantasmagoric, Hoffmann puts the strangeness of E.T.A Hoffmann’s original stories to work in what becomes not a story of the elements of love, but of one man’s psychological journey through a world gone blurry and indistinct.

© Thomas Aurin
© Thomas Aurin

Commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin for its Tischerlei black-box theater, Hoffmann is a curious and interesting work. Directed by Jakob Ahlbom, the story here seemed to be less about one man telling of his past loves (all of whom are facets of the same woman), and more about how Evil, in the character of Der Andere (“The Other”), succeeds in destroying Hoffmann’s hopes for love with the woman of his dreams.

The performance starts as a bachelor party, with a trip to a shooting range (with Olympia as a sex doll) and a brothel (Giulietta’s), during which Hoffmann suffers a psychological breakdown and fantasizes his fiancée (Antonia) cutting her own heart out because marrying him would mean the end of her singing career. Hoffmann is left clutching her bloody heart and singing that he’ll never love again, while Der Andere (at once Lindorf, Coppelius and Miracle) reclines on the couch, smoking a cigarette and smiling.

In terms of artistic merit, the production is a success. Champert’s new music consists of a modern interlude, not related at all to Offenbach’s original fluff, in which Hoffmann, having given Giulietta his reflection and being abandoned by her, suffers a psychological breakdown. Played by a pared-down, four-man band of piano/organ, clarinet, viola and contrabass, Offenbach’s music was modified to fit three singers and a small, all-male ensemble. It was a modification that worked: the ensemble’s tone was rich and clear, partygoers and funny boys having a good time, yet never managing to drown out the band. Perhaps the most interesting change was the repurposing of the duet “Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour” for male ensemble and soprano. Unorthodox, but effective.

Paul Kaufmann, in the title role, sang with a light, clear tenor, his singing never once buckling under the strain of doing a number of difficult dance moves. Hoffmann’s ambiguous character and his ultimate vulnerability were well done – indeed, it was distinctly disconcerting to watch Kaufmann curl up in the corner during the last act, while he watched Der Andere kill Antonia.

Australian soprano Alexandra Hutton played the three women, Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia. A mean feat for anyone, and Hutton’s honey-toned coloratura rose to the occasion admirably. As Olympia, she was both girlish and eerie, jerking around the stage alongside two doppelgängers, somersaulting and even driving Hoffmann’s bumper car while tossing off fiendishly difficult high notes with the ease of long practice. Her Giulietta was sultry, and languid in her seduction of Hoffmann. As Antonia, Hutton displayed the anguish and hopefulness of a young woman torn between her love for Hoffmann and her desire for her own life and career. Her ultimate death was her own choice: she could not give up her dreams, and yet her heart belonged to Hoffmann, and so she cut it out and gave it to him, and died.

All this was watched over by Der Andere, sung by American bass-baritone Seth Carico. Carico’s performance was strong and exciting, ranging from chipper party-goer to devil incarnate. His third-act duet with Antonia and his instigation of her death were the most gripping parts of the evening. An amalgamation of all of the opera’s villains, Der Andere represented the dark side of man. While in the original his role is to destroy Hoffmann, in the adaptation he is much more ambiguous. Is he a friend leading Hoffmann on one last night of bachelor revels, or is he a devil set on destroying the protagonist’s happiness? One thing is certain: it is entirely because of Der Andere that at the end of the show, Hoffmann is a wreck.

Ultimately, though, it was in the last act that Hoffmann’s weaknesses showed. Mixing modern music with Offenbach’s lavish Belle Époque whimsy is tricky business, and we are left wondering how Hoffmann got from dreamy to insane. Was it because Giulietta stole his reflection? Because of Der Andere? Did Antonia really kill herself or is this his deepest fear? Why did each woman have two doppelgängers? What was real here? Who knows? Whatever the answer, Hoffmann is an admirable and creepy production, well-acted and well-sung, a fascinating if not fully satisfying night at the opera.