Saturday 11 February 2012

The Tales of Hoffmann - ENO @ The Coliseum

Offenbach's opera is less a biographical account of ETA Hoffmann, but instead uses his literary work as a conduit to explore Romantic ideology.  It premiered in 1881 after the composer's death and in the thick of the Romantic period.

The libretto has the author as the central protagonist, so of course elements of his personality will trickle into the narrative.  Like in reality, Hoffmann's operatic doppelganger is unlucky in love (Hoffmann died of syphillis in 1822) and struggles with alcoholism.  In fact, the opera is bookended by a prologue and epilogue that see Hoffmann entertaining students with a drinking song and smoking, as if the central three acts are alcohol and drug induced dreams, inverting the ideals of high Romanticism.

Hoffmann was a pioneer of the Romantic movement, in particular with his fantastical and gothic literary work that inspired, amongst others, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.  Offenbach's opera takes elements of these stories to weave his own narrative that sees Hoffmann reflecting on his own work.  Guided by his muse (disguised as his childhood friend Nicklausse), Hoffmann tells three bizarre stories inspired by his love for the prima-donna soprano Stella, each of the three female characters of the stories who Hoffmann falls for suggesting different elements of Stella's personality.  The purpose of this is to rekindle Hoffmann's waning artistic inspiration.  As such, he is poised as the tragic Romantic hero who suffers in love for the sakes of his art - as in Tim Hopkins's English translation, the chorus sing in the epilogue "The embers of your heart restore your life to art".  Moreover, his love for each woman is depicted as an impossibility - doomed and hopeless.  This is due to the appearance of three male representations of evil - nemeses who Hoffmann must strive to overcome.

Offenbach offers us three operas for the price of one.  Each of the three acts has a distinct setting and musical style, stemming from the three women.  The first is Olympia who, unbeknownst to Hoffmann, is in actuality a puppet.  Consequently, the Baroque-esque music is the most formally structured and Olympia's bel canto vocal style, with its chirruping trills and rapid scalic runs, suggests her mechanical nature.  The second, Antonia, is a tragic heroine who's strange disease inherited from her mother means if she sings she will die.  Her music is lyrical and the least heavily structured of the three.  The third is Giulietta, a prostitute who steals the souls of men, who's music is dramatic and sensual. 

The settings for these three acts are undefined, allowing the director and designer to unleash their imaginations.  For this ENO production transferred from the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich, director Richard Jones and designer Giles Cadle transport us into three weird, surreal fantasty realms - a brightly coloured child's fantasy of toys and puppets; a dark, Shelley-esque gothic world of phantoms and magic; and a clinical yet seedy world dominated by a mysterious mirror (the device used to steal men's souls).  With such distinct ideas, the opera does run the risk of being disjointed.  However, each set stemmed from the realistic opening prologue, exaggerating certain pieces of Hoffmann's study, like the mirror, piano and bed.  There were also suggestions of drug-induced psychedlia - from the surreal pipe on the screen between scene changes, to the eerie lighting that bathed the otherwise dark second act in a green hue.  Continuity is also provided by the cast, using the same actors for mutiple parts.

Offenbach's score, with its varying musical styles, does feel a little derivative.  A clear influence was Mozart, in both Offenbach's natural style and literally in the musical quotations used in the prologue and epilogue.  Indeed, the soprano Stella is (off-stage) performing in a production of Don Giovanni.  However, this Mozartian influence likely derives from Hoffmann himself.  Not only did he write his own version of the Don Juan legend, but he changed his middle name to Amadeus in honour of the composer.  As a whole, though, the score is a delight with its colourful and magical orchestration.  Hidden dramatic complexities prove there is more to this music than immediately apparent.

For all its weird and wonderful style, it was the cast who truly brought the opera to life.  Central was Barry Banks's Hoffmann.  Offenbach cast this role as a lyric-tenor, linking to the Italian Romantic tradition.  It's a difficult sing, but Banks's passionate voice rang true over the orchestra.  Christine Rice sang the muse/Nicklausse with boyish clarity, whilst Simon Butteriss's deep rumbling bass was well suited to the four nemeses.  The star attraction though was American soprano Georgia Jarman, who rose to the challenge of all four contrasting women with immense vocal dexterity.  Her tone was warm and rich - impressively soft and controlled in Olympia's puppet aria to compliment the stilted movements of her automaton, yet beautifuly emotive in the later dramatic moments. 

Offenbach's opera portrays the triumph of art and ENO's opera was similarly an artistic success.  Whilst parts of the design could have been pushed to further extremes, this flight of fancy was weirdly depicted and wonderfully sung.


Watch:  ENO's The Tales of Hoffmann runs for nine performances from the 10th February to the 10th of March.