The venerable Viennese tradition of airing dirty operatic laundry in public found an unlikely proponent this season in the form of the Theater an der Wien’s mild-mannered director Roland Geyer, who, unhappy with William Friedkin’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann in March, abruptly sacked the American director and announced he would devise a new staging himself a matter of months before the second run. Geyer said that adjustments were required which Friedkin would not consider, while Friedkin claimed that Geyer never made his dissatisfaction known and likened the abandonment of the Kaye/Keck critical edition (which was used in March but not for the current run) to ‘a dog peeing on a tree’.

© Werner Kmetitisch
© Werner Kmetitisch

Whether every last remnant of the Friedkin production, down to the sets which designer Michael Curry gave permission to be used in the second run, has been scrupulously excised in order to avoid legal complications or to allow Geyer to be his own artistic man (or for both these reasons) is unclear. But however generously his lack of preparation time, shoestring budget, and inexperience as an opera director may all be taken into account, the results are weak. Friedkin had nothing profound to say about the work but kept things moving and made three and a half hours fly by, whereas Geyer’s offering adds no conceptual substance and feels a good hour longer despite being half an hour shorter by the clock.

The Stella parts of the prologue and epilogue play out in a cramped, darkened space behind a half-lowered stage curtain, and the blocking is only marginally less static in the tavern scenes. Having no budget for costumes, Geyer has raided the wardrobes of past Theater an der Wien productions to fashion a tableau vivant of operatic characters which comes to life as Hoffmann dons the magic glasses in the Olympia act. This motley troupe remains onstage for each subsequent tale but lapses into a purely ornamental role, most astonishingly in the Antonia act, which is done, Ariadne auf Naxos-style, as backstage melodrama. For a metatheatrical conceit to run out of steam just as commentary on the work is introduced is an absurd incongruity. Geyer had staged Olympia’s Doll Song as a catwalk number and a return to themes of image and narcissism comes with Giulietta, who flaunts a heroin-chic look and exhibitionist tendencies to no intelligible dramatic end. As with Antonia’s backstage woes, the dinner party setting of this act missed a few opportunities too many, and a Venetian reference in the guise of gondolier-shaped sauce boats lowered onto the dining table with great solemnity was really quite bizarre. As with all of Geyer’s odd and unexplained imagery, it communicates too poorly to undermine our familiarity with the work and allow fresh insights to emerge, and yet is strange enough that it undermines the conventional territory the production ultimately occupies.

The Wiener Symphoniker were on leaden form with less detail and colour coming from the pit than in March, while the ever-engaging Arnold Schoenberg Chor were mostly immune to Riccardo Frizza’s listless conducting. Marlis Petersen showed clarity of tone and solid technical work in the three female roles but little differentiation – the coloratura seduction aria the Kaye/Keck edition adds to the Giulietta scene re-ran the unusual stylings brought to the Doll Song, while her Giulietta more generally was not appreciably more dramatic in sound than her Antonia. Arturo Chacón-Cruz had a hard time with Hoffmann’s punishing demands: his lyrical instrument is predominantly coloured by a graininess of texture which turned to raggedness as the evening progressed, not helped by the forced squillo of his top notes. John Relyea possesses a Mephistophelean bass-baritone perfect for Lindorf and put in a strong turn which was never too knowingly devilish. Roxana Constantinescu’s Nicklausse displayed strong character work but wasn’t as memorable as her performance in March.