Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann is a fine example of how the ridiculous can indeed be sublime. Three E.T.A. Hoffmann stories about otherworldly love affairs with defective femmes fatales, one of whom turns out to be a mechanical doll, connected only by the author’s gullible alter-ego as protagonist, scale the heights of the phantasmagorical.

Strings, BBC National Orchestra of Wales © Betina Skovbro
Strings, BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© Betina Skovbro

Hoffmann recounting these stories in a tavern with the help of confidante Nicklausse is hardly a plot. A good portion of it is not even the creation of Offenbach himself, as he died before completing it, but rather the concoction of manuscripts discovered posthumously over the years. In the absence of a definitive final script, the opera presents interesting artistic choices: the order of the scenes, whether to use one voice for the three women with whom Hoffmann is infatuated, and what music to include.

Jean-Louis Grinda’s production on Saturday was not intended to be an artistic breakthrough, but the superb balance of all the elements working together resulted in a satisfying evening. The staging was elaborate and faithful to the historical context; the lighting was dark and brooding, reflecting Hoffmann’s remorseful mood; the costumes were very smart and well-tailored.

The set was imaginative and functional – nothing was out of place or incongruous. The centrepiece was a triptych of translucent panels. Hung mid-air in the Prologue depicting Luther’s tavern, it created the effect of a skylight in an atrium. It was then lowered to form a screen on the stage backlit to project Olympia’s silhouette in Act 1. One of the panels lay flat on stage as the tomb of Antonia’s mother in Act 2. A thin veil upstage opened at times to reveal a palatial background.

With the large number of characters involved, it’s easy for some singers to stand out and upstage others. Someone must have put a lot of thought into casting to achieve the superb balance among various members of the cast. Isabelle Philippe put on an enthralling coloratura performance, nimbly navigating the vastly undulating contours of the robot doll Olympia’s signature tune “Les Oiseaux Dans la Charmille” in Act 1.

Irish soprano Sinéad Mulhern took on the dual roles of consumptive singer Antonia in Act 2 and Venetian courtesan Giuletta in Act 3, which her slightly heavier voice suited well. Her duet with Hoffmann, “C’est Une Chanson D'amour”, was not the best I had heard, but captivating nevertheless. She could have been more coquettish as the scheming Giuletta, though.

Luca Lombardo as Hoffman took on a very challenging role, with a significant part in almost all the five segments of the opera. Although not a voluminous or overpowering tenor, he maintained an even smoothness with wonderful stamina in the marathon. He would have stood out more with a wider range of dramatic variations.

Hoffman’s nemeses were played by Nicolas Cavallier. Serious and ominous, his singing was rock solid, but a little more evil wouldn’t have gone astray. Frankie Liu is a delicate tenor capable of sustained high notes, and he mastered the differences among the four servant roles with flying colours.

Most of the time disguised as Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse, but actually his poetry Muse, Aurhelia Varak has a fine voice offering sobriety countervailing Hoffmann’s intoxicated infatuations. The ulterior motive, of course, is to win him over to poetry. In the end, Hoffmann loses faith in love and devotes himself to artistic creativity - love’s loss is art’s gain.

The delight of the evening was how well the Hong Kong Sinfonietta performed under conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, who managed to tease out layers of warmth I had not heard from the orchestra in recent times. The flute, clarinet and oboe provided superb support to the soloists, and the horn sounded particularly sympathetic. The rapport between the large contingent on stage and the orchestra was palpable, almost like a couple finishing each other’s sentences.

No one part of the production on Saturday stood out as exceedingly brilliant, yet all the elements worked together so well that the performance as a whole was slick and very enjoyable. It was a tough decision for me to forgo a chance to hear Vladimir Ashkenazy conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic next door, but Opera Hong Kong’s performance vindicated my choice.