Les Contes d’Hoffmann has a complicated editorial history. The unfinished manuscript resulted in a plethora of different versions, with different cuts and apocryphal addition. Conductor Frédéric Chaslin chose to ignore the recent Kaye-Keck critical editions, presenting a version based on the traditional Choudens edition (the gossipmongers maintain the reason is that the copyright for Choudens has already expired, as opposed to Kaye and Keck).

Vittorio Grigolo (Hoffmann)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

La Scala presents its new production of Jacques Offenbach’s masterpiece directed by Davide Livermore, focusing on the fantastic, magical character of the opera. The plot is based on the (very famous, at the time) short stories by ETA Hoffmann, a German Romantic author and prominent exponent of the fantasy and Gothic horror genres. Livermore exploits these elements through old-fashioned theatrical expedients: the levitating table during the summoning of the spirit of Antonia’s mother, the candle – held by Antonia – leaving her hands and flying over the orchestra and stalls. Chinese shadows (by Controluce Teatro d’Ombre) contributed to the mysterious, enchanted atmosphere. Masked mimes, all in black, were omnipresent on stage, representing perhaps demonic creatures, dancing, moving props, imitating the movements of the protagonists.

Francesca Di Sauro (Giulietta) and Vittorio Grigolo (Hoffmann)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Gianluca Falaschi's costumes refer vaguely to the period between the two world wars. The singers often engage in dancing on the rhythm of the orchestra, giving a feeling of a kitsch musical, which is perhaps a bit much, but not completely at odds with the magical atmosphere. At the beginning of the third act, during the orchestral introduction to the Barcarolle, dark green fabric agitated on the stage mimes the waves in the Venetian lagoon; suddenly a group of mimes rush into the theatre from the back, holding and waving an enormous sheet of the same fabric over the heads of the audience in the stalls, giving us the feeling of being engulfed in the Venetian waters. It lasted only a few minutes, but it was truly magical. My feeling is that Livermore, with a few missed steps, manages to capture the fantastic, enchanted atmosphere of the opera.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

A particularly successful idea comes in the first act, where Hoffmann falls in love with a mechanical doll. Here, Olympia is a real young woman, forced by her father to embody the male ideal of a young, innocent, pliable girl with no personality, saying only “Oui!” During her aria, she is covered by pieces of a mannequin moved by the mimes, turning her into a doll, while other mannequins on stage imitate her movements. Hoffmann is busy taking selfies with the dolls, and nobody pays any attention to Olympia. She unsuccessfully pleads for Hoffmann’s attention, trying to assert her humanity, growing more and more frustrated, until she gets hold of a gun and shoots her father and Hoffmann... very on point.

Federica Guida (Olympia) and Vittorio Grigolo (Hoffmann)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Chaslin’s conducting was on the heavy side, with a somewhat boisterous polonaise at the beginning of Act 1, overall perhaps lacking some effervescence and refinement, which Offenbach’s music invites. The Teatro alla Scala Chorus was simply magnificent (as usual, I want to add) in all their interventions; they showed precision, spotless intonation, good dynamics, a testament to the great work of Alberto Malazzi.

Eleonora Buratto (Antonia) and Luca Pisaroni (Dr Miracle)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Vittorio Grigolo (Hoffmann) and Marina Viotti (Nicklausse) were announced in precarious health, but this didn’t noticeably hinder their performances. Grigolo was tired at the end, but he was on stage for the whole opera, in a lirico-spinto role, so it was more than understandable. The part is particularly suited to his attitude (he tends to be a bit of a ham); he threw himself into the role body and soul. His voice is still beautiful, the high notes were secure and full of squillo (most of them, anyway) and his swagger on stage was perfect for Hoffmann. Viotti was an elegant, refined Nicklausse, her “Vois, sous l’archet frémissant” was much appreciated. She managed to convey both the Muse’s sarcastic attitude and her sincere interest in Hoffman’s well being. 

Luca Pisaroni (Lindorf) and Greta Doveri (Stella)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The four demonic characters were sung by Luca Pisaroni, roles which turned out to be too high for him, but he managed to navigate through them. Eleonora Buratto, as Antonia, displayed a splendid timbre, secure high notes and ravishing filati; her interpretation was certainly one of the highlights of the evening. Francesca Guida’s confident coloratura and well projected soprano were very suited to Olympia, even if some trills were flattened out, and the super-high notes were a bit thin. Giulietta was Francesca di Sauro, who also sang Antonia’s mother; I appreciated the rich, mellow colour of her mezzo, and the intense interpretation of the Venetian courtesan. François Piolino played the four servants – in drag, for some unknown reason – he was funny, his light tenor well projected. Veteran Alfonso Antoniozzi was remarkable as Luther and Crespel.