Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Royal Opera, November 2008

This was opening night, so Rolando Villazon can be forgiven for starting out rather weakly as Hoffmann, particularly as he strengthened during the performance and did a fine job of the final scene at the tavern. This opera is an intriguing work, where Hoffmann describes three earlier loves, Olympia, Giulietta, and Antonia, all of whom portray aspects of his current lover, the opera singer Stella. The well-dressed Count Lindorf appears in the tavern and is determined to detach her from Hoffmann. He then appears first as Coppelius, creator of Hoffmann’s first lover, the mechanical doll Olympia; second as Dappertutto the confidante of Hoffmann’s next lover, the courtesan Giulietta; and third as Dr. Miracle, overseeing the death of Hoffmann’s other lover Antonia. She has a beautiful voice, inherited from her late mother, but her father blames Miracle for the death, forbids Antonia to sing, and bans Miracle from the house. But Miracle enters, persuades her to sing, and she dies in Hoffman’s arms. The three thaumaturges and Count Lindorf are one and the same, and these four incarnations were well sung by Gidon Saks, though I would have preferred a darker voice and presence.

As to the ladies, Olympia was sung and acted to perfection by Ekaterina Lekhina. It is difficult to imagine a better performance, and I shall always remember this as the highlight of the evening. Giulietta was Christine Rice, Antonia was Katie van Kooten, and Stella was Olga Sabadoch. None could compare to the first one, a feature that would have been avoided by having one soprano for all four roles, as Offenbach intended, though I realise a suitable singer is hard to come by. The strange house servant for all three of the young ladies destroyed by Hoffmann’s attentions was extremely well sung and portrayed by Graham Clark, and Kristine Jepson was good as Hoffmann’s companion. Antonio Pappano conducted with superb lyricism, and this was a fine performance.

The original production was by John Schlesinger, and I suppose it was his idea to eliminate the end of Act II, so Giulietta simply sails off in a gondola instead of drinking the poison that Dapertutto has prepared for Hoffmann. She should die in Hoffmann’s arms, like the other two. He holds the doll as it disintegrates, and holds Antonia as she dies. I was very disappointed that they missed the final music for this act, and Dapertutto’s, “Ah, Giulietta, maladroite!”, which for me is one of the high points of the opera.

Highly recommended, but losing the end of Act II partly loses the plot, because Hoffmann, allied by the magus, destroys his lovers, and in recalling these destructions he is ready to let Stella go. By forcing Hoffmann metaphorically to see himself in a mirror, the magus, alias Count Lindorf, wins the woman who combines all three lovers. And that is a good reason for going back to Offenbach’s original order for the three acts: Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, where the final one of these uses a mirror to capture Hoffmann’s image. It is a great shame that Offenbach died before the first performance, as this has given other people the excuse to monkey around with his intentions. Can we please get back to the original!! Yes, it’s long, but if we use the original spoken dialogue instead of recitative, we won’t need the cuts. Sets designs by William Dudley were excellent, as were the costumes by Maria Bjoernson, and the lighting by David Hersey was superb.

This opening night was dedicated to Richard Hickox, who conducted the previous performances in 2004, and had died suddenly a few days earlier.

Leave a Comment