Take three stories from the macabre imaginings of romantic writer ETA Hoffmann. Add in the sparkling frivolity of Belle Époque operetta composer Jacques Offenbach and then filter the resultant opera through the carnivalesque mind of director Damiano Michieletto. The result? With the reliable Guillaume Tourniaire on the podium and a first-rate cast on stage, Opera Australia’s The Tales of Hoffmann is an instant winner.

Marko Mimica (Dapertutto) and Jessica Pratt (Giulietta)
© Keith Saunders

Hoffmann is an ambitious work, Offenbach’s late bid for immortality in a more serious vein than has been accorded to the composer of the famous can-can. Left unfinished on his death, and much mauled over succeeding decades, the opera makes Hoffmann the author a central character: three flashbacks present three unhappy love affairs, before he eventually learns from the Muse that his misfortunes in romantic matters should be turned to creative ends. 

Michieletto, whose previous Sydney productions include a hugely fun Il viaggio a Reims (2019), made some noticeable interventions in the plot. He sets the first love story (featuring the doll-like Olympia) in a classroom, and in the second he reimagines the sick Antonia as a frustrated ballet-dancer rather than opera singer. In the final embedded story, there is no mortal duel with a rival and no killing of the Venetian courtesan, Giulietta; instead, in one of set designer Paolo Fantin’s most brilliant effects, Hoffmann (or rather, his reflection) is trapped inside a mirror while a faceless body double is dragged off.

Agnes Sarkis (Nicklausse), Adam Player (Cochenille), Jessica Pratt (Olympia), Opera Australia Chorus
© Keith Saunders

Garnishing the whole are dancers, now as cross-dressing green fairies (an allusion to the flaming absinthe favoured by present-day Hoffmann?), now rats, now camp devils, all dressed by Carla Teti as if for the Mardi Gras parade. Humour abounds, especially in the Olympia act, but also playful grotesquerie in the form of a giant on stilts (for Hoffmann’s Kleinzach aria) and a plague doctor who (literally) loses his head in the Venetian scene.

Much of the fanfare beforehand was about Jessica Pratt, the Australian star soprano who has forged a stellar career overseas in the big bel canto roles. Playing all three of the hero’s past love interests, and Stella, his present-day inamorata, she grew in stature over the evening. Her rendering of the fiendish coloratura in Olympia’s doll aria was very fine if not entirely flawless; Antonia allowed her to show off her cantabile, and she reached new heights as Giulietta.

Marko Mimica (Coppelius)
© Keith Saunders

Equally strong was Iván Ayón Rivas in the title role. He sang tirelessly and pleasingly, capturing the hero’s various transformations between embittered old man, young boy, ardent swain and desperate roué. The villain – or rather villains – were played by Marko Mimica. As Hoffmann’s constant nemesis, he sang with forceful gusto and macabre energy.

Agnes Sarkis brought a bird-like sprightliness to the role of Nicklausse, the hero’s sidekick, here reimagined as a kind of stylised macaw (in case we missed it, she carried a bird). She also showed herself capable of delectable lyricism in the famous Barcarolle with Pratt. Among the huge cast, special mention should be made of Adam Player, whose grumpy aria as a camp ballet master Frantz frustrated by the antics of his young pupils was a hilarious highlight.

Agnes Sarkis (Nicklausse) and Iván Ayón Rivas (Hoffmann)
© Keith Saunders

The chorus was in rude form, whether parading in masks or swigging pints, while Tourniaire coordinated pit and stage with aplomb. The orchestral sound, which often comes across as thin or muffled in the unflattering acoustic, had an unexpected fullness from the first chords, with a lovely solo from the concertmaster Emma McGrath in the Antonia act. 

One of Opera Australia’s best productions in many a long year, this Hoffmann is lavish, imaginative fun. Go see it before the run closes.