One of the most fascinating virtues of Les contes d'Hoffmann is its rare ability to praise and mock Romanticism without any sense of contradiction. Letting Hoffmann bear all the narrative burden (the three central acts are but delusional tales of a wasted soul) allows Offenbach to present his story as a bombastic display of Romantic love and poetic doom, but also as the subjective, imaginary journey of a drunken poet who overdramatises his erotic discontent for the amusement of a bored audience. This contrast ignites one of the most brilliant scores in 19th century opera, which swings from operetta to post-Wagnerian grandeur with amazing ease. The result is an original, almost vanguardist work that twists traditional operatic roles and dares to ask two crucial questions that artists have been trying to answer for centuries: What is the source of inspiration? What is the purpose of art? In this new production, the last big project of Gérard Mortier, who sadly passed away one month ago, stage director Christoph Marthaler masterfully explores these mysteries and leads a committed artistic crew to offer an unforgettable performance; a bitter and intriguing reflection on Romanticism and decay.

Anna Viebrock, probably one of the best living set designers in Europe, provides the perfect setting for the story. Following Mortier's own suggestion, she mixed different architectural elements from the Círculo de Bellas Artes, an institution that has played a leading role in madrilean cultural life since it was built in the 1920s. Thanks to random and spasmodic body language and the brilliant costumes designed by Viebrock herself, surrealism pervades this temple of culture. In its Art Deco café female models pose for painters, bored artists contemplate the Jump from Lefkada (a sculpture whose mythological story is a beautiful premonition of Hoffmann's fate) and a chorus of delirious automats waits for Hoffmann's tales.

From this surreal introduction, Marthaler manages to underscore the subjectivism of Hoffmann's tales while putting the three female characters at the centre. He enhances, like no other production does, the rebellious dimension of the women in the three stories: Olympia revolts against male dominance, but her disobedience is limited by her own mechanic nature; Antonia faces the same dilemma that torments Hoffmann and defiantly chooses art over love; and Giulietta, a sort of premature Lulu or Salome, embodies the utmost erotic challenge. This interpretation builds up through the performance until it reaches its climax when, in the final act, Stella opens her mouth. But instead of singing, the opera diva recites an excerpt from a poem by Fernando Pessoa (Ultimatum), a fiery Futurist rant against bourgeois art and declining Western culture, in front of a defeated Hoffmann who is just as bewildered as his audience. Stella tears Hoffmann apart because he is incapable of understanding her language: for the first time in the opera another subject (until that moment, the object of his desire) confronts his narrative and transcends the constrained role that his Romantic imagination had in store for her.

In the end, Hoffmann finds inspiration through his painful loss. But in this case artistic creativity is nothing more than the bitter relief of a man who is unable to love, a waste jump from Lefkada. Romanticism is thus a decaying theatre of unrepentant misunderstanding, a delightful palace of masculine self-indulgence. The closing scene where Hoffmann is lulled by the caring and aging Muse becomes here a tableau vivant of a crucial chapter in intellectual history.

This fascinating dramatic display would have been impossible without Sylvain Cambreling's nuanced, rational and sobering conducting. He perfectly kept the balance between the different souls of the score and masterfully revealed its irresistible complexity, even if one might have liked a bit more of freshness in the lightest parts. He used the Oeser edition with some changes in Giulietta's act and putting it after Antonia's, which matched the dramatic progression of the production.

Eric Cutler was a more than convincing Hoffmann, one of the hardest tenor roles in the repertoire. The voice tends to open in the high notes, but the beautiful, warm centre sounds healthy and well projected. He opted for a dramatic vision of the character, which offered a stimulating contrast to Marthaler's antiheroic conception of Hoffmann, but he lost some of the character's natural lyricism on the way. Ana Durlovski's metallic voice was perfect for Olympia and she delivered her aria with a mechanic precision that did not leave room for the smallest hint of humanity. Measha Brueggergosman was a great disappointment as Antonia and Giulietta. Her dramatic commitment and her appealing stage presence were spoiled by a deficient singing technique that tends to inflate the emission of the voice, making it sound saturated and wobbling.

Vito Priante, on the other hand, sang beautifully, with perfect French diction and attentive phrasing, even though he did not seize the opportunity of crowning his rendition with a good “Scintille, diamant”. The Muse (who never fully turned into Nicklausse) was played by the great Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Her voice has lost the freshness of brighter days, but she still has breathtaking moments of high-class singing. Her Muse, full of tender details, was one of those magical embodiments that subtly adds to what is known about the character.

With this mesmerising version of Les contes d'Hoffmann, Marthaler has proved (as Offenbach did more than one century ago) that it is possible to love Romanticism through its satire, and that understanding its masculine subjectivity in historical perspective is a fruitful exercise of artistic reinterpretation.