Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Dessay, Kim, Pavlovskaya, Losier; Spyres, Vas, Naouri; Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Denève. Production: Pelly. Erato 46369140, 183 mins, subtitled
This 2013 Barcelona Hoffmann has everything going for it but musical distinction. Laurent Pelly's production is effective and provocative. It casts the opera as the hero's hallucination, with the dislocations and absurdities of a dream, played out on sets (by Chantal Thomas) that impose Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-esque distortions of perspective. Antonia's house breaks apart and reassembles itself like an Erector set, creating precipices that nobody seems to notice. The whirling lobby furniture of Giulietta's Venice suggests the fluid morals of its denizens. Stagehands hoist Olympia up and down on a crane as she sings her bird song; in Hoffmann's deluded eyes, she's flying. Hoffmann dreams here in black and white: the production's subdued color palette is all ashy grays and slate blues, with the costumes (by Pelly himself) in a variety of earth tones. The scheme might well serve for a production of Wozzeck, but the spare elegance of the design gives it an overtone of Parisian chic.
The text for this performance, based on the recent critical edition by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, presents material in nearly every scene that will be unfamiliar to viewers who know Hoffmann in the standard Choudens edition, along with much that's entirely new — an aria for Dapertutto, replacing the spurious "Scintille, diamant"; an extended ensemble closing the Venetian act; a conciliatory aria for Stella in the Epilogue; and an aria for the Muse, backed by chorus, as the work's finale. It's all worth hearing. If only it were better performed! Laurent Naouri is a persuasive advocate for the new Dapertutto number. But Susana Cordón's quavery rendition makes no good argument for the inclusion of the Stella aria. The unsteady mezzo of Michèle Losier renders the finale a distinct anticlimax.
Hoffmann is Michael Spyres, a rising tenor who is making his mark in bel canto assignments, where his firmly knit instrument is a distinct asset. But Hoffmann is central lyric-tenor territory, calling for a voice that opens up on top in a way that Spyres's cannot manage here; in fact, in the high, declamatory lines of the Venice-act finale, Spyres's top all but deserts him. Throughout, his work here seems dutiful rather than abandoned: judging by this video, he hasn't yet developed the panache needed for a role that calls for a star, pure and simple.
Natalie Dessay, having long since left Olympia behind her, is the performance's Antonia. Her physical commitment to the role is undeniable, and in the spoken scene in which Antonia thinks Hoffmann has betrayed her, she delivers the dialogue with the incisiveness of a true tragédienne. But her vocal estate here is dire. The sound is wiry and shrill on top, little more than a hoarse whisper below. The video documents a valuable artist attempting to create an operatic portrayal with painfully limited access to her most important expressive instrument.
The role of the Muse/Nicklausse, in this version the second largest in the piece, is blemished not just by Losier's unsatisfactory singing but by her tendency to mug. Tatiana Pavlovskaya brings a glamorous presence and a blowsy sound to Giulietta. Kathleen Kim's Bride-of-Chucky turn as Olympia lands right on the mark.
The production presents the four villains, in the person of Naouri, as a single character. The bass-baritone's tone is somewhat hollow, but his stylish singing and saturnine mien make his portrayal the most successful in the video. (Bravo, too, to whoever decided to apply black polish to his fingernails — a wonderfully perverse detail.)
As if taking his cue from the somber staging, conductor Stéphane Denève offers a reading that's notably short on high spirits. Or perhaps it's simply that, for the most part, he doesn't have singers who can perform this music with the zest it needs.
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