Offenbach’s Les contes d'Hoffmann must be a gift to stage. Based on three of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s disturbing tales, the opera allows plenty of scope for inventive directors – or possibly plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. Barrie Kosky, with nods to the surreal and the macabre, plunges us headlong into Hoffmann’s nightmarish world in a terrific new production at the Komische Oper. You may not always agree with his decisions, but they are executed with élan to make this a riotously entertaining evening.

Uwe Schönbeck (Hoffmann) © Monika Rittershaus
Uwe Schönbeck (Hoffmann)
© Monika Rittershaus

Offenbach died four months before opening night and confusion and scholarly debate about what exactly constitutes Hoffmann has raged ever since. Which edition do you choose: Choudens, Oeser or the relatively recent Kaye-Keck? Spoken dialogue or recitative? Which order of acts do you follow? Do you employ one soprano to sing all of Hoffmann’s lovers? A single bass-baritone for the four villains? It’s a veritable operatic pick’n’mix and Kosky helps himself.

His two boldest decisions raise eyebrows. On the basis that Offenbach began composing the role of Hoffmann for Jacques Bouhy (Escamillo in the 1875 première of Carmen), Kosky uses a baritone for the Prologue and “Olympia” act, before reverting to a tenor for “Antonia” and “Giulietta”. But wait… he employs a third Hoffmann! The entire opera is framed by an actor – Uwe Schönbeck – who puffs and wheezes his way (in German) as he recalls three doomed love affairs. Drowning his sorrows in a sea of alcohol, empty bottles flooding the stage, Schönbeck’s Hoffmann is ever-present. Initially, I found his contributions tedious, but warmed to him as the opera progressed. Hoffmann’s infatuation with Stella, the singer in whom he sees glimpses of his past lovers, is more acute here than in other productions. Kosky replaces the Epilogue with… I shan’t give the game away entirely, but it involves Mozart and a coffin and is surprisingly moving.

Katrin Lea Tag’s set is a giant square slab, which tips and dips to allow swift scene changes. Her costuming of the chorus provide some of the evening’s most memorable images: men in identical ballgowns taunting Hoffmann, women dressed as Antonia’s mother, scraping away at violins and furiously jabbing Antonia to her death.

Nicole Chevalier (Olympia) and Dominik Köninger (Hoffmann) © Monika Rittershaus
Nicole Chevalier (Olympia) and Dominik Köninger (Hoffmann)
© Monika Rittershaus

Shining in all three soprano roles (her role as Stella being mute) Nicole Chevalier stole the evening. I can imagine very few singers with the pure lyric soprano for the angelic Antonia who also possess the requisite coloratura dazzle for the doll Olympia and the smoky lower register for a vampish Giulietta. Chevalier threw in snarls, squeals and barks as Olympia’s mechanisms went berserk, as well as coloratura orgasms as her Giulietta straddled Hoffmann. Her comic acting as the doll brought the house down.

Dimitry Ivashchenko’s suave, silky bass was the perfect fit for the four villains, plucking out Hoffmann’s eyes as the creepy Coppélius, then plucking a diamond from Hoffmann’s mouth as the dangerous Dappertutto in the Venetian act (minus “Scintille diamante”, but it’s a dubious insertion aria). Polish mezzo-soprano Karolina Gumos was another ever-present – Hoffmann’s Muse donning frock coats of various shades as his sidekick, Nicklausse, as well as playing the ghost of Antonia’s mother. Gumos doesn’t have an especially rich lower register, but her top blooms with soprano brightness.

Dimitry Ivashchenko (Dr Miracle) © Monika Rittershaus
Dimitry Ivashchenko (Dr Miracle)
© Monika Rittershaus

What of our three Hoffmanns? Baritone Dominik Köninger coped well with the tenor material (although Offenbach intended the role for baritone, he had to rewrite it for star tenor Jean-Alexandre Talazac as a condition of it being taken up by the Opéra Comique). Königer was in fine voice, only finding the tessitura a challenge in the dreamy central section of Hoffmann’s Kleinzach ballad. In replacing Köninger for the second half, it was unfortunate that Edgaras Montvidas lacked the heroic tenorial ring required, his voice sinewy and pale. However, the singing was always clean and he acted with conviction. Schönbeck’s Hoffmann spluttered away gamely, even if he outstayed his welcome.

Minor roles were splendidly taken by Peter Renz and Philipp Meierhöfer, the latter’s sinister Schlémil unrecognisable from his transvestite Cochenille. Stefan Blunier and the orchestra tackled Offenbach’s score with relish – a hellish bass drum in the Venetian act almost making us leap from our seats. Blunier paced the music perfectly. The only balance issue – not the conductor’s fault, I suspect, but a deliberate decision – had the Barcarolle sung so far off-stage (voices meant to be emerging from the coffin?) that the words were barely audible. A musically satisfying evening, Kosky’s Tales of Hoffmann was often exhilarating, occasionally exasperating, but above all, gloriously entertaining.