Deutsche Oper Berlin’s new production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann has towering sets of stark and somber colours to evoke the fin-de-siècle atmosphere of Bismarck's Germany. There is amazing stage craft: Olympia sings her high-wire coloratura aria while being hoisted up and down on a crane, at one point flying over the orchestra pit. But the production by Laurent Pelly, first shown in Lyon in 2005 as a joint production of four opera companies, also has significant drawbacks, especially in the latter part of the performance. The director commits the biggest sin of all in Act 2: the beautiful Mother/Antonia duet is ruined by the mother’s face being projected on a back screen and her voice piped in via microphone. The staging of the act, aside from Antonia’s claustrophobic bedroom, is awkward, with most singing taking place with a huge staircase as a background. Act 3 takes place in a swanky nightclub, but Luther’s Tavern in the prelude and epilogue is nothing but rows of benches and moving walls. Not a drop of liquid is in sight while Hoffmann falls into intoxicated stupor and the chorus of men extol the joys of drinking. Abstraction is a welcome feature of modern staging, but watching the sepia-coloured walls move up, down and sideways all evening, and characters all dressed in dark hues except for Olympia (in a striking metallic silver dress) and the Muse (in a white gauzy gown), gets tedious.  

Les Contes d'Hoffmann ensemble
© Bettina Stöß

It is noteworthy that the performance incorporated some of the more recent discoveries of various editions of the work. We have an extended Giulietta act, with additional arias, duets, and a final murder of Giulietta by Hoffmann, and extended dialogues are included. In the epilogue, Stella has a brief aria. All this places an enormous demand on the performers. I was delighted to experience the same soprano take on all four heroines, a less frequent occurrence than the same bass baritone singing the four villains. A young American soprano, Heather Engebretson, was impressive as the four heroines: the show-stopping Olympia’s aria was sung with optional high notes and embellishments, she was touching as Antonia and her Giulietta seduced with velvety middle voice. Another American, tenor Robert Watson in the title role, had a handsome stage presence, with muscular and ringing voice. If his singing lacked a variety of colour to convey the emotional turmoil of a poet, his inexhaustible stamina served him well in a long evening. Another young American, mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, singing the Muse and Nicklausse, had a smooth, clear and expressive voice. She sang and played the two roles as distinct and separate characters, a unique accomplishment. 

Alex Esposito
© Bettina Stöß

The best performance of the evening came from veteran Alex Esposito, singing the four villains with delicious malice and wicked humour. He lent authority and gravitas to a performance filled with younger colleagues; his every utterance and gesture was calculated and executed to make a maximal impact, Ying to Hoffmann’s Yang. In the prologue, the director used yellow stars of David on the door to signify that the villain is Jewish: while apropos with Offenbach’s ethnicity, it is not clear if this adds much to the overall production. Smaller roles were well sung, with the men’s chorus making an impressive contribution after a somewhat tentative start in the prologue. A pity that the ending did not feature the usual beautiful chorus singing the praise of art as solace to the misery of life: this edition featured a more quiet ending, with Hoffmann on stage embraced by the Muse.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola led an energetic performance with the orchestra in fine form, especially the winds and strings. He opted to support the singers rather than bringing out the complex motifs and layers of the score. One could not help but wishing for more dynamics in tempi and phrasing, but he was mindful of the overall musical arch of Offenbach’s uncompleted masterpiece, that reflects obvious influence of late Romanticism but looks towards the diversity and turmoil in art and politics of the next century to come. It was a happy occasion as well to experience a more extended version, with the three loves of the poet, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, each getting their fair share of singing.