A hundred years before surrealism became a known genre, E.T.A. Hoffmann was there – or, in modern parlance, “out there”. And nowhere more so than in his story The Sandman, in which the regular late night visitor to his father, at his childhood home, turns into the monster of folk legend who blows sand into children’s eyes; “Coppelius” comes to haunt the author throughout his life, in various guises.

<i>Les Contes d'Hoffmann</i> © Wilfried Hösl
Les Contes d'Hoffmann
© Wilfried Hösl

Who better to incarnate this monstrous figure than Nicolas Testé? The French bass is a tall, imposing figure on stage, with rugged features and a stentorian voice capable of terrifying the wits out of every audience member, let alone the hapless Hoffmann. Somehow, his voice managed to do this while staying smooth and lyrical, and Testé successfully trod the narrow path between strongly played villainy and cartoonish overacting.

For this performance of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, the Bavarian State Opera can hardly have found a stronger Hoffmann than Michael Spyres, who threw himself into the role with relish. Spyres bounded about the stage, a picture of youthful exuberance, including a notable stage fall onto a table barely big enough to hold him. He threw his voice around with equal abandon, with all the power and brightness of tone that we’ve come to expect from him. Like Testé, Spyres correctly pitched a role that is tricky to judge: form the audience’s point of view, Hoffmann is a comic figure, whereas from his own standing, he is a deadly serious romantic.

Olga Pudova (Olympia) © Wilfried Hösl
Olga Pudova (Olympia)
© Wilfried Hösl

The first of Hoffmann’s three loves – taken from The Sandman – is Olympia the mechanical doll. I had been looking forward to Aleksandra Kurzak taking on the three heroines and was disappointed when she pulled out of the role a couple of weeks ago, but I have to admit that there’s a lot to be said for having a specialist in the role, with its weird and wonderful jerks and swoops. It’s not that the tessitura is so terrifyingly high, it’s that the high notes are very staccato and come out of nowhere. Olga Pudova was outstandingly good, the sweetness of the voice, timing and intonation never faltering. She also clearly adores doing the role, executing the “clockwork running down” moves brilliantly and staying in character through the extended applause at the end of "Les oiseaux dans la charmille”.

Diana Damrau (Antonia) and Michael Spyres (Hoffmann) © Wilfried Hösl
Diana Damrau (Antonia) and Michael Spyres (Hoffmann)
© Wilfried Hösl

I was less impressed by Diana Damrau, who played the other heroines. Damrau’s voice has lots going for it – intonation, phrasing, timbre were all fine. What she didn’t have, in this performance, were consonants: I was hardly able to make out a single word she sang all night. And you know things are wrong when there’s more chemistry on stage between Hoffmann and Olympia than with his two loves who are actually alive.

To some extent, that’s down to Richard Jones’ production. I’ve somewhat soured on this since I first saw it seven years ago at ENO. I enjoy the various surreal touches, like the giant pipe blowing smoke rings between acts, and the out and out weirdness of the Olympia scene, imparted by the feel of an Edwardian nursery (the fact that the “kids” are actually fully grown adults only adds to the spookiness). But I found the Antonia and Giulietta scenes rather colourless, each lit up by only a few neat stage tricks (Antonia’s theft of the keys, followed by Dr Miracle appearing from inside her piano, and the giant telescopic shaving mirror that Dappertutto uses to steal his victim’s reflections). In particular, the Giulietta scene was very short on glamour, to some extent a casualty of using the same basic set for all of the scenes and also the directorial choice of making her rather coarse as opposed to a high class courtesan.

Angela Brower (Nicklasse) and Michael Spyres (Hoffmann) © Wilfried Hösl
Angela Brower (Nicklasse) and Michael Spyres (Hoffmann)
© Wilfried Hösl

As Nicklausse, Angela Brower made a good foil for Spyres, as well as delivering her various arias with some style. However, Brower and much of the rest of the cast also suffered from indifferent diction, making me rely on a combination of memory and German surtitles far more than I would have liked (although the Bayerische Staatsoper programme includes a full libretto, allowing one to do some mugging up in the intervals).

Under the baton of Constantin Trinks, the orchestral performance was also mixed: a generally high standard wasn’t given the desired lift in the standout numbers of Kleinzach and the Barcarolle. A mixed evening overall, then, with Spyres, Testé and Pudova the undoubted stars of the show.