Tales of Hoffmann — a second view, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2012Posted on 19 February 2012
This was a second visit to the English National Opera’s new production of Hoffmann, a joint venture with the Bavarian State Opera.
The cast was identical — see my previous review for more details — and once again, Georgia Jarman gave a remarkable performance as all three lovers: Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta, along with the silent role of Stella in the Prologue and Epilogue. Her performance of Olympia the doll is hugely realistic, particularly in those moments where she apparently loses energy in her movements and the pitch of her voice declines. Clive Bayley reprised his sinister performance in the four roles of Hoffmann’s nemesis: Lindorf as a rival for Stella, Coppelius whose collection of stolen eyes provide a pair for Olympia, Dr. Miracle whose anti-hippocratic antics cause the death of Antonia, and Departutto whose employment of Giulietta to steal men’s souls nearly causes the end of Hoffmann’s artistic life. It is Nicklausse, his companion, doubling as his muse, who saves him, and in this role Christine Rice gave a stunning vocal performance. Her final soliloquy, containing the phrase “but our tears make us great” was sung with a warmth that gave a final focus to the entire evening.
The forcefully sung Hoffmann of Barry Banks is having a crisis in the Prologue, banging his head against the wall and tearing up his written notes. Somehow his love for wine, women and song has disconnected him from his muse, and this opera represents his regeneration as a creative artist.
The production by Richard Jones has very interesting aspects, but there are no programme notes and as Mr. Jones is a man of few words, here is a brief, albeit inadequate summary.
The very stylised actions in the Prologue and the first act, well-portrayed in the painting-by-numbers front drop that descends part way through that act, give way in the mysterious Act II to the angst of Antonia and her father. As Dr. Miracle’s ‘patient’ she is finally seen merely as an eerie spotlight, rather than in the flesh, and then as the third act comes into play it is not Hoffmann’s lovers who are in danger of being lost, but the man himself.
Metaphorically the stylised nature of Act I represents some kind of safety for Hoffmann, as if he were clinging to the edge of the pool, but this changes in Act II with Antonia’s strangely ill-defined malady. Now Hoffmann lacks an anchor, and in Act III is in danger of drowning. His survival depends partly on himself, as he defeats Schlemil in a knife fight, and partly on the ineptitude of the forces ranged against him. One of my favourite lines in the French original is where Giulietta drinks the poison reserved for Nicklausse, and Departutto calls out, “Ah, Giulietta, maladroite!”
On the opening night I was puzzled by the workmen appearing to fix the stage in between Acts I and II, but both these acts are portrayed as slightly unreal, as if they are contrivances devised by Nicklausse, and the workmen fit into this scheme. The gorilla appearing in the interval between Acts II and III, and again throughout Act III seems to have puzzled everyone. I have no explanation except to note that Departutto’s destructions are wrought through non-intellectual, animal desires, catalysed by Giulietta, and … well, it’s a long shot … but E.T.A. Hoffmann was so enamoured of Mozart that he changed his third name to Amadeus, and in Mozart’s Magic Flute strange animals appear from the forest. That, like Hoffmann, is an opera in which the hero endures various trials before reaching a state from which he can move forward.
Finally, Antony Walker in the orchestra pit conducted with fine sensitivity, and the musical aspects came over beautifully. I look forward to seeing a revival of this production in years to come, but in the meantime performances at the ENO continue until March 10 — for details click here.