Director William Friedkin doesn’t put a dramaturgical foot wrong in his Theater an der Wien production of The Tales of Hoffmann and yet doesn’t challenge, or even engage with, any of the opera’s Romantic positions. Did the notion that serious artists aren’t entitled to live life, for instance, ever have much currency outside of the 19th-century? (Photographs of Schoenberg, who took himself with the utmost seriousness, show him perfectly at ease on family beach holidays.) I don’t know if it is a good thing that these questions don’t seem to matter in Friedkin’s production, but then it is so well-crafted, and its three tales of thwarted love follow on so seamlessly from one another, that it covered up its lack of substance without ever seeming unsatisfactory for doing so.

Mari Eriksmoen (Olympia) & Kurt Streit (Hoffmann) © Werner Kmetitsch
Mari Eriksmoen (Olympia) & Kurt Streit (Hoffmann)
© Werner Kmetitsch

Friedkin does have the one big idea, which is that he sees the character of Councillor Lindorf as a projection of Hoffmann’s dark side, but while this Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy is emphasized at the beginning (Lindorf steps out from behind the stage curtain and serenades an identically-clad Hoffmann sitting in one of the boxes), it’s a thought which is developed more forcefully in his programme note than in the staging itself. The three acts that follow are told in strong narrative style, with all of the detail of the text put on stage with a generous number of creative touches and good dramatic pacing. It was also encouraging to see the direction of the singers clearly responsive to the music and not just the text.

The one fixed object in Michael Curry’s set is a staircase with two divided flights, which sounds innocuous but succeeds in lending continuity to Hoffmann’s narrative: its presence, slightly reconfigured in each scene, is enough to suggest that we are seeing the same tale being told again and again. The Prologue and the crowd scenes in the Olympia and Giuletta acts were directed with an eye to how the various chorus members could participate meaningfully in the action rather than just observe it passively, and there were no supernumeraries involved or indeed anyone on stage who didn’t have some part to play.

Angel Blue as Giuletta was too nice to be perceived as a plotting temptress, though she does score feminism points for showing how her character gets manipulated and used by an oppressive male company she can’t escape (the direction of the chorus drove this point home effectively). Her duet went against the grain, with mild singing and little vibrato, but she made it consistent with her view of the character and it felt in keeping with a production in which nothing was too over-the-top musically. Mari Eriksmoen’s Olympia showed similar vocal restraint, with pleasant, clean tone and decisively unmechanical coloratura. Juanita Lascarro had good lyric singing to offer in all parts of her range and acted the unknowing Antonia convincingly.

Aris Argiris offered the same wide-eyed crazed stare for all his roles, but that and his grainy baritone seemed suited to the part well enough. Kurt Streit’s lighter voice contrasted well and was pleasant to listen to, though he had quite a lot of difficulty with register breaks and top notes. Roxana Constantinescu produced what sounded to my ears as the best French of the night, and the smoothest phrasing.

The Wiener Symphoniker didn’t always maintain focus, with some slips in ensemble, but their horns were excellent and there was some good hushed playing for the Barcarolle. Riccardo Frizza’s tempi were well-judged and his conducting singer-friendly, with occasional musical moments coming alive with deft touches of character and colour. It was just lacking in consistency, and he might have allowed the orchestra to assert itself more.