Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Offenbach Hotchpotch

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Offenbach Hotchpotch

Article excerpt

The Tales of Hoffmann ENO, in rep until 10 March Gotterdammerung Live from the Met. at Huntingdon Is any opera more frustrating than Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann? It persistently arouses hopes which it almost as persistently fails to realise. Because there is no such thing as an authoritative text, one always hopes that a new production will have hit on a solution to its numerous problems. I've seen enough accounts of it now to feel miserably confident that any production will be a mixture of pleasures and let-downs. This new effort by ENO, a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, is as good an attempt as any I ever expect to see, and its shortcomings are emphatically not to be attributed either to Richard Jones and his team, or to the performers, the strongest cast that ENO has had for anything for a long time. Perhaps Antony Walker could give a stronger profile to the music, which the orchestra plays impressively; but he may have been hedging his bets as to how seriously we should be taking this hotchpotch of intensity, mockery, high spirits and gloom.

Hoffmann and his series of doomed loves are hard to sympathise with, but if we don't this very long evening becomes ever less enjoyable. Jones doesn't so much hedge his bets as exercise to the full his remarkable gift for dark comedy and light melodrama, but that still doesn't resolve the issue of what, finally, we are to make of Hoffmann's predictable series of delusions. Jones and his designer Giles Cadle present us with a continuously delightful series of stage pictures, including drop curtains of alternating wit and beauty. The permanent set, the kind of claustrophobic clutter that is Jones's hallmark, proves to be versatile, though it perhaps works best for the tale of Olympia, the singing doll. Disturbing as this scene is, it is the opera's most successful, and Georgia Jarman, who plays all Hoffmann's loves, acts brilliantly and sings with an unnerving suggestion that she is mechanical: this really is a contribution to the German tradition of meditating on dolls, puppets, etc. , which Kleist and Rilke among others engaged in, while being an ideal illustration of the tedium of coloratura without expression. Jarman's subsequent incarnations are just as convincing, but the cogency of the drama drains away.

Barry Banks is the tireless Hoffmann, sounding exactly as he has done now for many years, with a plaintive voice that has a limited expressive range. That is rather cruelly shown up by his muse and friend Nicklausse, Christine Rice at her creamiest, able to create in a few gestures and notes what many singers would take an evening to convey. …

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