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Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Fritz Oser version)
Eric Cutler (Hoffmann), Anne Sofie von Otter (La Muse, Nicklausse), Vito Priante (Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, Dapertutto), Ana Durlovski (Olympia), Measha Brueggergosman (Antonia, Giulietta), Christoph Homberger (Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, Pitichinaccio), Jean-Philippe Lafont (Maître Luther, Crespel), Lani Poulson (La Mère d’Antonia), Gerardo López (Nathanaël), Graham Valentine (Spalanzani), Tomeu Bibiloni (Hermann), Isaac Galán (Schlémil), Altea Garrido (Stella, Choreographer), Chorus of the Teatro Real, Andrés Máspero (Chorus Master), Orchestra of the Teatro Real, Madrid, Sylvain Cambreling (Conductor), Christoph Marthaler (Director), Anna Viebrock (Set and Costume Designer), Olaf Winter (Lighting Designer), Jérémie Cuvillier (TV/Video Director)
Filmed live at the Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain (May 2014) – 193’
BelAir Classiques DVD #BAC124 or Blu-ray #BAC424 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Notes in English, French, and German – Titles in English, French, German, and Spanish

We’ve all experienced performances where members of the audience walk out during the show. While watching this disc I experienced walkouts in my own home. I almost walked out myself.

The cluttered, starkly-lit unit set seems to be some sort of studio where people are doing life drawing; nude models come and go while the opera’s action (such as it is) carries on regardless. The operatic action, however, is at times afflicted with anomie while at other times the interaction between performers simply fails to occur when it should, while at times singers wander around at random. A group of dancers spasmodically hurl themselves around and at one point three men curl together in a ball and roll about the stage (this was my favourite visual of the entire show.)

Hoffmann enters with his head drooping, wearing a bathrobe. It took me awhile to recollect where I had seen a similar image: in the 1990 film Awakenings, based on a book by Oliver Sacks and telling of people waking up after decades in a coma. Does such a borrowing make a profound statement or is it an attempt to appear “with it”? Eric Cutler has the right voice for the title role and sings well, making a gallant uphill battle to remain in focus despite the misbegotten production.

The second longest role is that of Nicklausse, and Anne Sofie von Otter is mostly just plain awful - flat and shrieky. At one dismal point (of which there are many) she plays air guitar. As a complete surprise, though, she does a lovely job with her final piece “Des cendres de ton cœur”.

Baritone Vito Priante as the four villains has no allure either in voice or appearance and seems to be working to rule. The role really needs a bass-baritone anyway - and one with charisma, please. Christoph Homberger as the four servants probably suffers most from the directorial whims as he hangs around looking dreary from start to finish - but he has exactly the right voice.

Ana Durlovski sings a terrific Olympia. It comes as no surprise that she remains undismembered at the end of her act. Measha Brueggergosman strains as Antonia (and seems to still be alive at the end of her act, with a frozen smile on her face) but is okay as Giulietta.

Among the shorter roles Jean-Philippe Lafont as Luther and Crespel is good, although I’ll swear he’s just thinking of the paycheck.

There is a lack of synchronization between orchestra and off-stage chorus in the Prologue, but things really fall apart in the Giulietta act. The Barcarolle is agonizing with von Otter completely off-pitch (is this a joke?), then the chorus and later Dapertutto in his “Scintille diamant” fall behind the beat. At this point Hoffmann crawls beneath a pool table, a logical reaction.

Not only do the stage directions veer from what might clarify the convoluted plots in the work, there are changes to the dialogue. For example, Hoffmann cries what is translated as “Won’t you shut up!” to Nicklausse just before she yowls her way through “La poupéee aux yeux d’émail”. This was good advice, although it’s not in the original script. In the Epilogue we finally see the arrival of the longed-for Stella. Normally she sings very little, but in this case not at all. She is portrayed by the production’s choreographer, Altea Garrido, and she recites a fragment from Ultimatum de Alvaro de Campos by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, a scathing, nihilistic diatribe written in 1917. Here are a few choice bits: “vile age...I shower you with my contempt....epileptic dung heap...mildew of the new...a huge zero” - and on it goes. Did director Christoph Marthaler insert this to forestall anyone accusing him of all this?

This seems to be a record of the opening night performance because the production team joins the cast to take their bows. Among the singers von Otter receives jeering (understandable). Director Marthaler, who has the appearance of a village bumpkin, receives applause (nothing really jubilant, though) - suggesting that, after three and a quarter hours, the remaining audience was suffering Stockholm syndrome.

Michael Johnson




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