If a Regietheater director does his job well, he takes an opera well known in the repertoire and blasts it into a different orbit. But will that orbit coincide with yours? Krystian Lada’s radical new staging of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann will unquestionably cause shock and distaste to some, but to judge from the massive standing ovation at the Gothenburg Opera House, Lada brought the vast majority of the audience with him – myself included.

Kerstin Avemo, Tomas Lind, Eskil Fridfors
© Lennart Sjöberg

For Lada, the story and its author/narrator’s psychology are far too interesting to leave the piece as a smorgasbord of entertaining fairy stories. He wants to create a consistent narrative: his narrator/hero is horribly abused as a young man and his life proceeds through ill-fated love affairs in a repeated cycle of abuse. Preyed upon by his nemesis Lindorf (in his many guises), harassed by the father or pimp of his lovers, Hoffmann slowly sinks into cynical drunkenness, only achieving some sort of redemption at the very end. Commendably, Lada achieves this narrative consistency with remarkably little disconnection between the libretto and the events on stage – even though he places those in an aesthetic light-years away from anything Offenbach and ETA Hoffmann could have imagined.

Tomas Lind, Kerstin Avemo, Brian Michael Moore, GöteborgsOperans Kör
© Lennart Sjöberg

Lada uses a particularly broad palette of theatrical tricks. There’s high definition video of the singers, sometimes concurrent with the actual singing on stage, sometimes in newly written dialogue (spoken by the singers themselves in perfectly articulated French). Marian Nketiah’s sets are abstract, complex and constantly in motion, with a feel of science fiction or a television studio. There’s extensive use of body doubles. Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta are sung by the same soprano, but Hoffmann is split into three – his younger, middle aged and older selves; the director creates a real coup de théâtre when the younger and older Hoffmanns, whom we have assumed to be actors, start singing in trio with the first tenor, Joachim Bäckström. Bente Rolandsdotter’s costumes range from normal, to weird (there’s Madonna and whore complex aplenty), to many that are just plain grotesque – Katarina Karnéus’ naked fat suit was a gross-out impossible to unsee. Some of the action and particularly some of the costumes were disturbing to watch – bringing, for sure, a high level of Brechtian alienation – but then in Lada’s telling, Hoffmann’s life is pretty disturbing in itself.

Kerstin Avemo, Tomas Lind, Eskil Fridfors
© Lennart Sjöberg

All this was underpinned by excellent singing performances (and, it should be noted, immaculate French diction). Kerstin Avemo was a creditable Antonia and Giulietta and a quite extraordinary Olympia, bringing diamond-sharpened clarity to her high notes. In “Les oiseaux dans la charmille”, her timbre was ultra-smooth and her phrasing as secure as it became erratic when the mechanical doll runs out of power. Andrew Foster-Williams was in fine form, devious as Lindorf and Coppélius, malign and oleaginous as Dr Miracle and just plain violent as the pimp Dapertutto, bringing a solid bass-baritone underlay to all four roles. Splitting the title role between the clear-voiced Brian Michael Moore and the more mature-sounding Bäckström was a stroke of genius (Tomas Lind, as the older Hoffmann, gets less to do). As Nicklausse/The Muse, Karnéus was sometimes rather covered by the orchestra, but she gave us some of the most inspired moments of singing in the whole evening.

Tomas Lind, Brian Michael Moore, Daniel Ralphsson, Andrew Foster-Williams, Katarina Karnéus
© Lennart Sjöberg

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour once gave an interview in which he ascribed the band’s success to the potency of combining depressing lyrics with uplifting music. Viewed similarly, this production succeeds by combining a depressing narrative with the brightness and good cheer of Offenbach’s music, rendered with sparkle by Sébastien Rouland and the Gothenburg Opera Orchestra. What Lada achieved was to make me think more deeply about what lay behind the cheerfulness than any production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann I’ve seen in the past, taking out any sanitisation of 1880s Paris and amplifying the darkness in the original stories. It was not a comfortable process by any means – but ultimately an uplifting one. When Karnéus as the Muse (depicted in a giant video projection sitting with Hoffmann on a deserted beach) introduced the closing chorus singing that she will soften his blessed suffering, there were tears in my eyes. Yes, part of the director’s process of getting me into that state involved a high level of grossness. The final catharsis was worth all of that.

Fanny Wranne, Andrew Foster-Williams
© Lennart Sjöberg
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