Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Hoffmannovy Povídky, Tales of Hoffmann), Národní Divadlo (National Theatre), Prague, December 2010

This production by Ondřej Havelka places Hoffmann’s three previous lovers in the order that I think Offenbach intended: Olympia the mechanical doll, Antonia the daughter of a famous singer, and finally Giulietta the Venetian courtesan. From a dramatic point of view this sequence is the most effective, but Offenbach died more than a year before the first complete performance, and his opera is performed in various versions. In particular the Antonia act is sometimes placed after Giulietta since it’s considered musically more accomplished.

The story begins and ends in a tavern where Hoffmann awaits his lover Stella, a well-known opera singer who’s performing that evening. His nemesis Count Lindorf plots to take Stella away from him, and when Hoffmann replays the stories of his three lovers, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, Lindorf reappears as a malevolent force in the guise of: Coppelius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto. Tomasz Konieczny gave a fine performance of all four roles, showing excellent stage-presence. Ideally all four female roles should also be performed by one singer, but such versatility is extremely rare. Here we had Jana Bernáthová as Olympia, beautifully coordinating her coloratura with the doll’s awkward mechanical actions — she was superb. As Antonia in Act II, Pavla Vykipalová gave a gently sad portrayal, while in the background a projection of her mother gradually comes to life and enters the stage as a Wagnerian Valkyrie. Tomasz Konieczny was particularly strong here as the evil Dr. Miracle, entering the house through the walls, unannounced and unwanted. As Giulietta in Act III, Maida Hundeling, a singer of roles such as Tosca and Turandot, gave a big-voiced performance, well suited to the costumes in bold red, black and white colours with their gold and silver touches.

The ending of the Giulietta scene, before Hoffmann is transported back to the tavern, offers the director various alternatives. I prefer to see Giulietta die by drinking poison that her confidante Dapertutto has prepared for Hoffmann, but here Dapertutto’s magic saves her from the thrust of Hoffmann’s sword, and he merely succeeds in killing her servant Pitichinaccio. When we are swept back into the tavern, Stella appears, vanishes, and reappears in triplicate as all three lovers stalk the stage in identical costumes. It’s a good ending to a fine production, with Valentin Prolat portraying Hoffmann as a pawn in the whole affair.

The orchestra and singers were soundly conducted by Zbyněk Müller, and Atala Schöck sang superbly as the muse and as Hoffmann’s ever-present companion Nicklausse. This Hungarian mezzo has a glorious voice, and I look forward to hearing her again one day.

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