Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, November 2016

This classic 1980 production by John Schlesinger, superbly revived by Daniel Dooner, provides the juxtaposition of magic and reality inherent in so many of E T A Hoffmann’s stories.

In the tavern, all images ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

In the tavern, all images ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

The play by Barbier and Carré that underlies Offenbach’s opera is based on a selection of his tales that illuminate the dichotomy between life and art, framed here by Hoffmann’s first appearance in the prologue as he tumbles down the stairs into the tavern, and the final scene of the epilogue as he takes up his quill to write again. In the meantime he tells the story of three past loves, Olympia, Giulietta, and Antonia — in that order in Schlesinger’s production: automaton, Venetian courtesan, and daughter of a miraculous singer, all exhibiting aspects of his present lover, the diva Stella.

Hoffmann, Spalanzani and his creation Olympia

Hoffmann, Spalanzani and his creation Olympia

It is a source of perennial frustration that Offenbach never completed the opera for stage performance, and the Giulietta act can be placed after the one for Antonia and given a different ending. In this production Giulietta sails off in a gondola having captured Hoffmann’s image in a mirror, leaving him to fight and kill a previous lover whose shadow she once stole.

Hoffmann and Giulietta in Venice

Hoffmann and Giulietta in Venice

The beautiful realisation of this Venetian act is a gem, but then so are the others. The costumes are fabulous, the lighting subtle and the thaumaturgy unexpected, as when Olympia transmutes from human to doll, or when the image of Antonia’s mother vanishes from the painting to appear full-bodied on the stairs. Schlesinger’s production takes inspiration from Hoffmann’s own magical realism, well emphasised here in the placing and natural movements of the chorus that provides a perfect background for his fantasies.

Hoffmann and Antonia

Hoffmann and Antonia

The chorus itself sang with huge effect and Vittorio Grigolo’s Hoffmann exhibited poetry, passion and an ever-present sense of living on the edge. The Kleinzach episode in the prologue was delivered with cracking precision, and he imbued his portrayal with a quintessential creativity, well complemented by the excellent Kate Lindsey who made a fine male presence as his companion Nicklausse and female inspiration as his muse. As the three lovers, Sofia Fomina was a model of coloratura and mechanical perfection as Olympia, Christine Rice sensual elegance personified as Giulietta, and Sonya Yoncheva produced ravishing singing as Antonia. Catherine Carby made a fine appearance in the brief role of her mother’s spirit and Eric Halfvarson a powerfully troubled presence as her father Crespel.

Dr Miracle, Antonia and the spirit of her mother

Dr Miracle, Antonia and the spirit of her mother

Thomas Hampson as the triple-layered magus seemed lightweight, but came over more strongly as Count Lindorf, successful competitor for Stella’s affections, and Vincent Ordonneau in the three servant roles was particularly notable in his witty portrayal of Crespel’s man. Excellent support from the rest of the cast, and Evelino Pidò in the orchestra pit kept orchestra and singers together, though the music in the Antonia act seemed to lose tension and urgency at times.

As the first revival since 2008 this beautifully prepared staging brings out the timeless attraction of Hoffmann’s magic and Offenbach’s genius.

Performances continue on various dates until December 3, with a live cinema relay on November 15, and a Radio 3 broadcast on December 24 at 6 pm — for details click here.

Leave a Comment