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Hoffmann Revisited and Championed

Teatro La Fenice
11/24/2023 -  & November 26*, 28, 30, December 2, 2023
Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Iván Ayón‑Rivas (Hoffmann), Paola Gardina (La Muse), Giuseppina Bridelli (Nicklausse), Alex Esposito (Lindorf/Coppélius/Le docteur Miracle/Dapertutto), Didier Pieri (Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio), Rocío Pérez (Olympia), Carmela Remigio (Antonia), Véronique Gens (Giulietta), Federica Giansanti (La voix de la mère), Christian Collia (Nathanaël), François Piolino (Spalanzani), Yoann Dubruque (Hermann, Schlemil), Francesco Milanese (Luther, Crespel)
Coro del Teatro La Fenice, Alfonso Caiani (chorus master), Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, Frédéric Chaslin (conductor)
Damiano Michieletto (stage director), Paolo Fantin (sets), Carla Teti (costumes), Alessandro Carletti (lighting), Chiara Vecchi (choreography)

(© Michele Crosera)

Experiencing Les Contes d’Hoffmann in Venice is an intoxicating affair, as the opera’s third act takes place there. Enticingly on the bill was Damiano Michieletto, Italy’s enfant terrible stage director. This highly underestimated work is a treasure trove of potential ideas for any smart, erudite director. Fortunately, Michieletto was up for the challenge, and his deep knowledge and understanding of the opera was impressive indeed.

Often produced as a sentimental and literal telling of three stories of unfulfilled love, the opera still holds appeal thanks to its abundantly melodious arias. However, a thorough study of Offenbach and of the opera’s inspiration and hero, German poet E. T. A. Hoffmann reveals the depth of the work, often dismissed as minor, and sometimes derided as grand operetta.

Both Jacques Offenbach (1819‑1880) and Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1766‑1822) were ardent admirers of Mozart. Hoffmann, who added Amadeus to his name, was a jurist, composer, musician, caricaturist, poet and a major writer in the fantastic (horror) genre, a quintessential element of romanticism. Offenbach’s opera uses three of his works, Der Sandmann (1816), Rath Krespel (Councillor Krespel or the Cremona Violin) (1818) and Das verlorene Spiegelbild (The Lost Reflection) (1814) as the basis for Les Contes d’Hoffmann’s three acts, making E. T. A. Hoffmann the protagonist in all three.

The influence of Hoffmann in literature and on culture in general cannot be underestimated. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is based on Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (1816); Delibes’ ballet Coppélia is based on Der Sandmann; Schumann’s Kreisleriana (1838) is based on three of his tales; and the supernatural elements in Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander (1982) derive from various stories by Hoffmann. The author’s stories of the supernatural could be considered precursors of the horror and science fiction literary styles. His short story Vampirismus (1819) preceded Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) by almost eighty years.

Few are aware of Hoffmann’s novella, Don Juan (1814), a supernatural take on the legendary character, fascinatingly written in the first person. Fortunately, stage director Damiano Michieletto seems quite aware of the importance of Don Juan in the genesis of Offenbach’s masterpiece, which informs this production. It is no coincidence that in the Prologue, the diva Stella, the only flesh and blood woman among Hoffmann’s women, is in Nuremberg to sing Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Moreover, one of Nicklausse’s first utterances is “Notte e giorno faticar”, precisely Leporello’s opening line in Don Giovanni.

Both Don Giovanni, in Mozart’s eponymous opera, and Hoffmann, in Offenbach’s ultimate work, search unsuccessfully for the ideal woman. Both their quests are threefold; the ewig weibliche (eternal feminine) is tentatively found in three women, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina for Mozart and Giulietta, Antonia and Olympia for Offenbach. It is not accidental that Offenbach based his three heroines on the three vocal types in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Donna Anna and Giulietta are ideally sung by a soprano drammatico or spinto, Donna Elvira and Antonia by a soprano lirico and Zerlina and Olympia by a soprano leggero (though Zerlina is also sung by a mezzo leggero).

Michieletto had the brilliant idea of placing the first two acts in a scholastic setting. The young Hoffmann meets both Olympia and Antonio while searching for knowledge. Spalanzani, Olympia’s “father”, is the headmaster of a boarding school where young people receive a science‑heavy curriculum. Cochenille is the school janitor who is constantly teased by the naughty schoolchildren. The grand introduction of Olympia to society is a school event and not the grand ball traditionally seen in most productions. This actually feels more natural, as a débutante ball in a scientist’s workshop always felt awkward.

Spanish coloratura Rocío Pérez, as Olympia, is seen at the opening of the act, sitting at an upper level of the school. This is obviously a clin d’œil to Delibes’ Coppélia, where the doll is constantly sitting at the window. Both the French ballet and Olympia’s act are based on the same short story, Der Sandmann. Pérez is a very convincing automaton. Her mechanical movements are not exaggerated, as is too often the case. She impressed with both her movements as a mechanical doll and her coloratura. Her “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” (the Doll Song) was elegantly executed, with brilliant high notes. Her voice is more than appropriate for the role, but I would have preferred a heftier voice. Her French diction was splendid and her words easily understood.

François Piolino perfectly incarnated Spalanzani as the mad scientist, awkward and gauche, with glasses and messy hair, à la Einstein. Didier Pieri provided comic relief as Cochenille, a hapless janitor in Spalanzani’s school. Bass‑baritone Alex Esposito was evil incarnate in all four roles he played. Having Méphistophélès from Gounod’s Faust and Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust under his belt has definitely paid off. His French diction was superlative, no minor feat for an Italian singer. His “Je me nomme Coppélius” was deliciously performed, with Esposito enunciating every word like a jeweller polishing precious stones. Throughout the opera, he seemed to revel in being evil, which accentuated the comic‑tragic essence of the opera. This is one rare performance of Les Contes d’Hoffmann where the singer portraying the four evil characters almost steals the show.

By no means does the excellence of Esposito diminish the many qualities of Peruvian tenor Iván Ayón‑Rivas. To be singing Hoffmann in a leading opera house at age thirty is already a major accomplishment. The role requires a beautiful lyric tenor voice that is heavier than usual. Being a French work, it requires someone who has excellent diction in the language of Molière. Most of all, it requires a subtle and rare quality: ardour.

Hoffmann is one of the most desperately passionate characters in opera. Ayón‑Rivas has all these qualities and more. He is a good actor and is able to convey a certain credulity. How else would Hoffmann fall for a mechanical doll or an obviously debauched Venetian courtesan. His Kleinzach ballad in the Prologue had the right tone, with the poet wandering from storytelling to his own personal predicament. Michieletto had the brilliant idea of introducing a gigantic man on stilts during the ballad that immersed the audience further into the realm of the fantastic. It’s noteworthy to mention that the famous Kleinzach ballad is based on yet another E. T. A. Hoffmann satirical fairy tale, Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober (1819).

For the second act, we are transported to a Ballet School. As was her late mother, Antonia is a star ballet dancer. She has a broken foot and moves on crutches when she is not in a wheelchair. While there is no reference in the text to dance and ample references to singing, I welcome this innovation. The theme is the same: the predicament of an artist endowed with an immense talent, unable to perform due to a serious ailment. In the libretto, Antonia has a weak heart and singing might (and does) kill her, as it did her mother. However, a broken foot is a more tangible problem for a ballet dancer. Italian lyric soprano Carmen Remigio, a bel canto specialist and a thrilling interpreter of the very germane Donna Elvira, was a perfect choice for this role. Being Antonia offers her little technical challenge, but it requires a particular plaintive colour and pathos. That, Remigio offered abundantly. She was an emotionally alive Antonia that one also sensed was doomed, and her “Ella a fui, la tourterelle” was appropriately melancholy. It was delightful to discover Remigio’s mastery of French: clear enunciation, emphasis properly placed where it should be and a mastery of diphthongs. One hopes she will add more French roles to her repertoire.

(© Michele Crosera)

A character role that rises to prominence thanks to Michieletto’s transposition is the servant Franz, sung here by the excellent Didier Pieri. No longer a servant, he is the school’s maître de danse, effeminate, flamboyant and extravagant. Instead of having the old servant dance to his ditty “Jour et nuit, je me mets en quatre”, the dance master is teaching a lesson to six young ballerinas that make faces at his pedantry whenever he is not facing them. Much more effective comic relief was provided this way. It is to be noted that Offenbach pays further homage to Don Giovanni, described as a dramma giocoso, by alterning between the tragic and the comic.

Esposito’s Docteur Miracle is more terrifying than Coppélius in the previous act. His provenance is clear: Hades. Though one knows the gloomy outcome, his duet with Antonia is eerily suspenseful. By magic, he enables the poor cripple to get out of her wheelchair and dance brilliantly. Instead of making the portrait of her mother speak to her, commanding her to sing, an offstage voice is heard and a portrait of her ballerina mother comes to life. They dance together until the magic is gone, the mother disappears and Antonia drops dead.

At the end of the act, the evil Docteur Miracle smashes a cello. This relates to the source of this act, Rath Krespel, where the spirit of the heroine is in the violin. A cello rather than a violin is used as Offenbach himself was a cellist.

The final act, the Venise act, is the most memorable of the opera due to the enchanting “Barcarole” (Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour”) and to the usually splendid sets. We are most likely in the 1920s at the Venise Casino, with elegantly dressed patrons. The scene is quite creepy thanks to the dim lighting, the odd antiques and, most of all, the masks worn. The charged atmosphere is reminiscent of the masquerade scene in Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), itself based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (1926).

French soprano Véronique Gens is a majestic Giulietta, too elegant and noble to be a courtesan (or the cruder term used in an updated epoch). She magnificently portrays a noble whore under the spell of evil Dapertutto (a name signifying Everywhere in Italian, like an omnipresent evil spirit). In her duet with Nicklausse (sung by mezzo Giuseppina Bridelli), the two voices contrasted well and blended harmoniously. This role demands a particular colouring of the voice to convey who Giulietta is: seductive, manipulative and cold. Gens was able to add one more quality through her subtle acting: reluctance and remorse, thereby rendering Giulietta more human.

In this act, the spirit of evil in his incarnation as Dapertutto goes all out. His usual “Scintille diamant” is omitted, which is a pity as it would have been a delight with Alex Esposito, but we are in purist times and the Urtext is the law. The original lines are less effective and do not crystallize the miscreant’s character. Dapertutto goes into convulsions as Giulietta almost fails in her mission to trap Hoffmann’s shadow. Giulietta manages to steal Hoffmann’s shadow. Allegorically he goes through the mirror, as in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), a powerful image. He stays trapped behind the mirror until the end of the act, suggesting it was a grotesque fantasy.

Iván Ayón‑Rivas was especially effective in this act. His lines “Hélas! Mon cœur s’égare encore! Mes sens se laissent embraser. Maudit l’amour qui me dévore!” were so passionate that they are still resounding in my head one day later.

Throughout this production, the Muse and Hoffmann’s faithful companion Nicklausse are interpreted by two different singers, though traditionally one singer does both. This innovation is effective: the Muse is a matronly woman dressed like Dame Edna (or Margaret Thatcher) and Nicklausse is a youthful adolescent. This works well as the Muse provides some comic relief and motherly affection. Nicklausse is the loyal friend, accomplice and protective companion. Both Paola Gardina and Giuseppina Bridelli were effective singers and actors in these two roles.

French conductor Frédéric Chaslin led a glorious sounding Orchestra della Fenice. As this is an especially passionate work, there are many passages with great élan. Nonetheless, he made sure to never drown the voices. Chaslin, also a renowned composer, especially of soundtracks, including the segment “Diva Dance” in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), knows how to set the mood, which varied from enchantment and fear, to passion and despair. His appreciation for voices was apparent in his loving support of the singers by adjusting the tempo to suit their vocal needs.

Offenbach was a German Jew, born in Cologne, who moved to France and became an emblematic composer of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. He converted to Catholicism to marry the daughter of a Spanish Carlist general and is not thought to have been religious. However, there’s an odd tribute in Les Contes d’Hoffmann to his Jewish roots. He introduces a character in the third act, Schlémil, Giulietta’s latest victim, whose reflection she had stolen. Schlemiel is a Yiddish term for a good for nothing, a gauche bungler. The choice of that name is also relevant to the action, as a certain Schlemihl is the protagonist in Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (Peter Schlemihl’s Miraculous Story) (1814) who sells his shadow to the Devil for a bottomless wallet.

In this production, we have a rare example of a radical updating of a major work that is strikingly successful, thanks to the intelligence of and the thorough research by the director. Many will miss the numerous references and allusions, but nonetheless the essence of the work is still there for all to see, easily enjoyable to the uninitiated. If other “modern” productions were half as intelligent and entertaining as this, opera might once again become truly popular.

Ossama el Naggar



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