Offenbach: Tales of Hoffman English National Opera
Tales of Hoffman is neither quite comic opera nor quite black comedy set to music. It takes itself too seriously to be the former; it lacks suggestive darkness of the latter…Tales of Hoffman misses the dark tonality and black humour that infuses much say of Don Giovanni. Yet the idea and the realisation isn’t without merit or genuine dramatic interest. Therein lays its oddity and its challenge.
Rather like Puccini’s Trittico, this is three separate stories – love stories in this case- but they are told or imagined through the drunken eyes of a singular protagonist – Hoffman himself….there is the story of Olympia, a doll who sings…. of Antonia …a doomed consumptive (a theme by the end on the nineteenth century that’s hardly pregnant with new dramatic possibilities) and of Guilietta….a prostitute who steals men’s souls literally and metaphorically…
Offenbach was mainly a composer of operetta…and no mean composer because that was his chosen medium…and for Tales of Hoffman he composes some staggeringly great (and famous) music…the doll’s song for Act I and the dreamy barcarole for Act III. But even with two such enormous plums as these to pull from it the sweet pudding palls over its entire three hours.
There is lack of a centrifugal force to the Opera. That is due more to its episodic structure than any musical failures on the part of Offenbach. In deed ever inventive Offenbach uses Hoffman’s main song to provide a unity of sorts to the Prologue and Epilogue – the aria for tenor and chorus – Lied vom Kleinzack….
Despite this rollicking number….the music spreads across the sprawling dramatic structure like a flat pancake rather than rising like a soufflé. And here the production didn’t assist and nor did the singing greatly enhance the experience. Much of the singing was full throttle and in the case of Barry Banks’ Hoffman the words screaming tenor come to mind. Georgia Jarman sang all three female roles and Stella…not an altogether even performance resulted….her Olympia far outshone the Guilietta…and frankly the barcarole which should be the highlight sank virtually without trace choked to death by the over-growth of the productions worst absurdities.
The production has had money, effort and expense lavished upon it…and doubtless pleased many who sat through it but I’ve seen Hansel and Gretel and many other ENO productions with more wit and magic. To be fair I’ve also see many with much less….but there is a particular visual irritation which seems to infect almost everything I see there….the need to have one small door as an entrance for an entire cast and chorus. In Tales of Hoffman its set stage-right (audience left)…and needn’t have been there at all….it merely needed suggesting…if the designer felt it was needed at all. And then we had Act II delayed as stage hands nailed down black cloth on to the stage floor….though maybe this was a deliberate bit of business…and before ACT III a costume-gorilla held stage ambling back and forth until whatever the joke was, was long lost…and it ruined the barcarole which is magic music and deserves better than irreverent stage-clowning of this obvious character.
I was at the top…upper circle…and there are two enormous speakers hanging there…presumably for bits sung off stage to be heard…. the trouble was the mikes picked up more than those sounds….hmnnnnn……..if I go to live opera I want live singing….and a production that fails to value those principles in my opinion conceptually fails…
I rarely adventure modern West End or Broadway musical theatre these days because everyone wears a mike…and you may as well stay at home and listen to the CD/DVD….I’m probably a lone eccentric…but the thrill of opera is the hear a human voice alone fill the public space….if I want a different experience of a different medium…TV or film…I happily go…but one shouldn’t pollute the other and least of all in opera and with tickets at these prices….
So there you are….and below console yourself with a version of the barcarole as it should be sung…Caballe and Horne…hardly could be bettered….
Caballé, Horne – Barcarolle
Montserrat Caballé and Marilyn Horne in concert singing the duet “Belle Nuit”, also known as Barcarolle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Offenbach. Munich, 1990