Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann
The Royal Opera, 28th November 2016
A return visit to John Schlesinger’s vintage production of The Tales of Hoffmann did little to alter my opinion from the first night of this final revival. For good or ill, it is like stepping back in time. On the plus side, the direction is faithful to the libretto, William Dudley’s sets have a grandeur rarely seen today and Maria Bjornson’s costumes look sumptuous. On the downside, apart from the “Antonia act”, the production doesn’t really capture the twisted, grisly nature of ETA Hoffmann’s original tales in the way that someone of the genius of Barrie Kosky does (for Komische Oper). When Hoffmann surrenders his reflection to Giulietta, the last thing the tenor needs to do is rush up to a gigantic mirror, at which point half the audience can clearly see his reflection in fine working order, thank you very much. And if your idea of dark villainy is a baritone rasping out an evil cackle and twirling his cape, perhaps you should head to the pantomime.
Chief interest this evening came from Leonardo Capalbo, taking over the title role from Vittorio Grigòlo for the final two performances of the run. The American produced a vibrant sound as Macduff for Dorset Opera last summer. Initially, he pushed his compact tenor too hard here in the Prologue, trying to hit full throttle too early in the Ballad of Kleinzach. The Olympia act, however, found him hitting form, a beautifully honeyed, lyric sound suiting the young Hoffmann’s naive innocence as he is duped into falling for Spalanzani’s doll. He rose to the challenge of the Hoffmann–Antonia duet splendidly, matching Sonya Yoncheva for spirit and passion. Capalbo is a more contained actor than Grigòlo, a distinct advantage in portraying the inebriated Hoffmann in the Prologue. His curtain call was a model of restraint.
Nicklausse is the faithful sidekick, the one with the brains, always on the lookout for danger, always trying to dig Hoffmann out of a scrape. Kate Lindsey’s looks of exasperation were delicious, her comic timing imitating Olympia’s mechanical breakdown spot on. Yet the highlight came in the Antonia act, with Nicklausse’s aria “C’est l’amour vainqueur”. Here, the Muse tries to influence Hoffmann, using the violin’s ability to console and elate as a means to persuade the poet to surrender his heart. Lindsey’s mezzo shone here, her upper register bright and secure.
Any baritone taking on the four villains is going to run into problems. The roles have a wide vocal range and require a darker bass-baritone quality. Thomas Hampson’s lower notes rang hollow, and the top is now quite parched, “Scintille diamant” lacking lustre. He was at his best as a creepy, lank-haired Dr Miracle, coaxing Antonia into fateful song.
Hoffmann’s three lovers are sometimes played by the same soprano – quite crazily when one considers their very different vocal demands. Here, three singers were employed. Mezzo Christine Rice vamped it up well as Giulietta, but Sofia Fomina was repeatedly under the note in Olympia’s “Les oiseaux dans la charmille”. The star turn came with Sonya Yoncheva’s Antonia, gloriously sung, believably acted. Different versions argue about the ordering of the Giulietta and Antonia acts – and there’s something distinctly odd about returning to the Barcarolle as an intermezzo straight after Antonia’s death – but there’s no denying that in this ordering, the best music comes in the final act. Ably supported by Eric Halfvarson (Crespel) and Catherine Carby (the voice of Antonia’s mother), Yoncheva gave a terrifically moving portrayal.
A few glitches from opening night have been ironed out. Hoffmann’s Muse, tucked away in a winged leather armchair as the curtain rises, now enjoys a spotlight – at least three of my colleagues missed her completely on first night. And the Venetian funeral gondola has had a liberal spray of WD40, gliding into view a little less effortfully. Sadly, there’s still plenty of rust inhibiting Evelino Pidò’s pedestrian conducting. Offenbach deserves more polish.