Sir, Madam, do you like your opera quirky? A singing mechanical doll? A giant shaving mirror? The Evil Eye itself in a piano? Then welcome to the inebriated, fantastical, phantasmagorical world of E.T.A. Hoffmann, brought to you by Mr. Richard Jones with a delightful musical accompaniment by M. Jacques Offenbach.

Simon Butteriss, Georgia Jarman, Iain Paton © Chris Christodoulou
Simon Butteriss, Georgia Jarman, Iain Paton
© Chris Christodoulou

Jones’s new production for English National Opera (and Bayerische Staatsoper, where we reviewed it last year) succeeds theatrically more than musically. Jones sets the three episodes as the fevered outpourings of Hoffmann’s drunken imagination, extracting masses of fun from the weirdness of each scene but also making the most of the linkages between them. So once we’ve been told that Hoffmann is fed up with love and seeking solace in poetry and drink, a bottle is always present at the front of the stage; three of the four very different rooms are set within the same distorted perspective frame; the four incarnations of his beloved played by the same singer, American soprano Georgia Jarman.

The settings and costumes are delectable, most particularly in the scene with Olympia the mechanical doll, where the details of every costume were remarkable. Olympia is truly gorgeous in massive blonde wig and huge sky blue gown which is used alternately for mannequin, Jarman or, most cleverly, half of each. Candy floss colours abound in the coats of her father and his ghastly assistant Cochinelle (played in splendid drag by Simon Butteriss). In the next act, there’s a memorable coup de théâtre when the consumptive Antonia opens the sheet music in her piano to discover the disembodied head of the evil Dr. Miracle urging her to sing herself to death. There’s much attention to detail: I particularly liked the platinum disc mounted on Antonia’s wall in memory of her singing mother; overall, this production gets a huge thumbs up for illuminating the story.

Sadly, though, the music was patchy and often missed the mark. The pick of the singers was Christine Rice as Hoffmann’s muse, incarnated as his school friend Nicklausse: Rice was bright, musical and threw herself into the character. Georgia Jarman embodied the dilemma of the choice between using one soprano to play all of Hoffmann's beloveds or to divide the parts between several. It’s always great visually if you use just one, but the required voice types are different. Jarman acted well and looked great on stage throughout, but vocally, she was superb in the coloratura of Olympia the mechanical doll and less exciting in the more dramatic parts of Antonia and the Venetian whore Giulietta. Barry Banks was a suitably musical Hoffmann, but I found myself wishing for someone with a bit more stage presence who would grab hold of things a bit more. Clive Bayley turned in a solid performance as the villains, particularly fine as the evil quack Dr. Miracle.

I thought the orchestral performance was lacklustre. Hoffmann has a wonderfully joyful, melodic score packed with opportunities to lift and thrill, and Antony Walker and the ENO orchestra simply didn’t make the most of it. The prologue story of the Kleinzach, which should be a barnstormer, came out rather insipid, and even the barcarolle (the one bit of Hoffmann that everyone remembers even if they don’t know the opera) displayed little Venetian lilt.

The Tales of Hoffmann is a lovely opera and Jones’s staging does a great job. But for this production to do it full justice, the orchestral performance will need to improve in the course of the run.

***11