The Tales of Hoffmann, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2012Posted on 11 February 2012
E.T.A. Hoffmann was a jurist, composer, critic, cartoonist, and author of fantastic tales that form the basis for Nutcracker and Coppelia. His stories about a composer named Kreisler inspired Schumann to his Kreisleriana, and after his death this polymath became a character in a play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, which Offenbach adopted, with a libretto by Barbier, for what is surely his greatest composition.
Certainly he intended it to be his greatest work, but died before its completion, and as a result it has appeared in various versions. The story begins and ends in a drinking parlour where Hoffmann tells the tales of his three loves, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, and the sub-plot is that they are all representations of the opera singer Stella whom he loses at the end to Councillor Lindorf. Such are the essentials, but among performance variations the lovers sometimes appear in a different order, and the courtesan Giulietta sails off in a gondola. So I was delighted that this production by Richard Jones places them in Hoffmann’s original order, with Giulietta dying as she drinks a poison intended for Hoffmann’s muse Nicklausse, who then rescues Hoffmann from the spell.
The roles of Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta are frequently sung by three different sopranos, but here Georgia Jarman gave a superb performance of them all, suiting her body language to these very different women, as well as Stella who is seen but not heard. Having one singer do all these parts is how it should be, because Hoffmann’s lovers can be seen as manifestations of a single fantasy, and I’m delighted that the ENO found someone who can cope with all three. Similar considerations apply to some of the other roles, and Clive Bayley gave a great performance as Hoffmann’s nemesis in the bass roles of Lindorf/ Coppelius/ Dr. Miracle/ Departutto, with Simon Butteriss extremely good in the four baritone servant roles. Christine Rice sang gloriously as Hoffmann’s muse, and Graeme Danby gave a strong performance as Antonia’s father and the innkeeper. Barry Banks was a forceful Hoffmann, and from the orchestra pit Antony Walker gave the music a fine lightness of touch.
This new production by Richard Jones has some interesting aspects, notably the fusing of Hoffmann’s young companion Nicklausse and his Muse. Dressed as a schoolboy he appears almost to be Hoffmann’s doppelgänger, restraining him from demons that would otherwise destroy him. Hoffmann is portrayed as a man with a serious alcohol problem, and before the music begins he is seen banging his head against the wall of his room. That room is a single set that serves all five acts, the advantage being that this whole thing can be seen as going on in Hoffmann’s mind, but the disadvantage being that the Giulietta act is not given the sumptuous staging it deserves. Like the beginning before the orchestra strikes up, each of the two intervals contains silent activity on stage. In the first one three men worked on the floor of the stage, and in the second a gorilla loped around. I understood neither — but see my review after a second visit.
The production is a joint one with the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, where it was performed (in French) last November, and will reappear this summer. Performances at the ENO continue until March 10 — for details click here.