This revival of Jean-Louis Grinda’s setting of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann proved one of the Teatro San Carlo’s most cherished productions of recent years. It was a remarkable show with an excellent cast of singers and a director who steered at ease into the libretto’s erratic changes of mood and atmosphere. Grinda’s direction goes straight to the point, without devices, supported by the unpretentious yet evocative sets by Laurent Castaingt and by late-19th-century costumes designed by David Belugou.

<i>The Tales of Hoffmann</i> at Teatro di San Carlo © Francesco Squeglia
The Tales of Hoffmann at Teatro di San Carlo
© Francesco Squeglia

In his lifetime, Offenbach was known for composing many operettas, and with this work he wanted to be taken seriously as an opera composer. He did succeed, unfortunately only posthumously, and Hoffmann has now a place in the major repertoire – albeit some of its hilarious and jolly moments remind us of the stylistic features of an operetta. Indeed, this opéra fantastique is a charming example of music theatre in the French style: amusing, suggestive and ghastly at times. This work has always been a showcase for singers, because of the large cast it requires.

Unhappy poet Hoffmann falls compulsively in love with all the women he meets and tenor John Osborn presented him as a disillusioned, Romantic anti-hero. As he tells of his past, ill-fated loves, we realise that he is nothing but a candid, fragile young man in love with the idea of love, constantly walking a tightrope between passion and cynicism.

In his vocally and expressively convincing interpretation of this challenging role, Osborn’s Hoffmann struggles against Alex Esposito’s various incarnations of his demonic antagonist – a most outstanding pairing indeed. Esposito was almost perfect in musical accuracy and dramaturgical flexibility. The four villains he presented stalk the poet with devious tenacity and a disquieting combination of threat and attraction. If Lindorf is imposing and Coppélius could even be considered hilarious, his Dapertutto is quite disturbing, while Dr Miracle is positively weird.

<i>The Tales of Hoffmann</i> at Teatro di San Carlo © Francesco Squeglia
The Tales of Hoffmann at Teatro di San Carlo
© Francesco Squeglia

The female roles were understandably assigned to different performers, as the juxtaposed voice-types vary, ranging from Olympia’s coloratura to Antonia’s delicate lyricism and Giulietta’s experienced, extreme self-confidence.

The women were all excellent. Maria Grazia Schiavo’s Olympia offered an outstanding combination of singing and acting skills. She was very smart at providing Olympia with a childish tone and a coquettish flank, which emphasised her non-human nature; the soprano sounded as limpid as usual, though, with a natural, warm glow.

Josè Maria Lo Monaco’s finely-textured voice was beautifully suited to Giulietta, a courtesan with whom Hoffmann is hopelessly in love. Nino Machaidze sang Antonia with tender tone and heartfelt eloquence. She showed dramatic power by creating a touching, delicate, ill young woman who dies thanks to her longing to sing.

<i>The Tales of Hoffmann</i> at Teatro di San Carlo © Francesco Squeglia
The Tales of Hoffmann at Teatro di San Carlo
© Francesco Squeglia

Annalisa Stroppa was an amazing Nicklausse, Hoffmann's muse disguised as his friend and confidant. She lent a real, rich mezzo to the role, with gleaming voice and intonation, and she also proved a witty performer whose versatility and vocal talent were decisive to move the odd story forward. She and Lo Monaco, at the beginning of the "Venetian" act, presented the well-known Barcarolle, perhaps Offenbach’s most beautiful music, with smooth, evocative allure.

In the pit, Pinchas Steinberg compensated the work’s dramatic ambiguities with a well balanced orchestra and choir. His interpretation was more captivating in the operetta-like passages, though, when he highlighted the brighter parts of the music.

*****