OPERA NEWS - Les Contes d’Hoffmann
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Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Bregenzer Festspiele

WITH HIS WILDLY fantastical take on Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann in the Festspielhaus at this summer’s Bregenz Festival, Norwegian director Stefan Herheim once again stakes a claim to being the most exciting and incisive proponent of Regietheater working in opera today (seen July 26). By working closely with both the libretto and the score (the quirky performing version used was assembled by the director and conductor along with dramaturge Olaf A. Schmitt), Herheim managed to make this familiar and much-loved work staggeringly fresh and wondrously strange. 

But that is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Herheim, whether in his Dresden Lulu, his Lohengrin and Xerxes in Berlin or his majestic Parsifal at Bayreuth. Herheim injects fresh, often shocking, life into the classics by dealing with the works’ reception history as well as their meaning in the present day. German opera houses are filled to bursting with “deconstructive” productions, but what sets Herheim’s apart are his intelligence, vivid theatrical flair, camp sensibility and the rigorous attention he plays to the intricacies of both music and text.

The curtain opened on a grand staircase surrounded by billowing white curtains. The platinum blonde Stella, the prima donna, entered in a glittering dress, with a bottle of liquor in hand, and took a spectacular tumble down the stairs during the brief overture. Splayed out on the steps, she was encircled by the chorus, attired like variety-hall entertainers, some in tuxes and top hats, others in flaming red wigs, stockings and garters. The Muse appeared at the top on the stairs dressed identically as Stella, who by this point was peeling off her clothing. In her garish make-up, pink corset and hair cap, it soon became clear that Stella was very much a man. The Muse, for her part, lifted her skirt to reveal a prophylactic phallus, at which point an irate voice screamed from the audience, “What’s with all this gay crap?” the only German (my translation here is purposefully toned down) heard during the performance. It was spoken by Michael Volle, the production’s Lindorf. Hopping onstage, he bribed Stella’s messenger, a dead-ringer for Jacques Offenbach, and extracted a puppet of Hoffmann from the cello case the messenger had given him the key to. And that was all just in the first ten minutes.  

The momentum never let up and the surprises rarely stopped coming over the course of the next three hours. The staircase broke apart to reveal Luther’s tavern, Spalanzani’s workshop and Crespel’s house (sets by Christof Hetzer). In the fourth act, here retitled “Fragment of a Liebestod in Venice” by Herheim, the set underwent yet another dazzling transformation, twisting and rotating itself into a semblance of the Ponte di Rialto, with a coffin-filled gondola (shades of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now) floating under fog-filled arches. If that act had the most elaborate and impressive stagecraft, it was also the only one where the director’s concept seemed somewhat underdeveloped. The role of Giulietta was divided among Olympia, Antonia and Nicklausse (at one point they even sang an aria as an impressive tag team); a clever idea, since Guilietta as a character remains quite incomplete the way Offenbach wrote her. But the act, which is already confusing in most stagings, here bordered on (the) incomprehensible through the elimination of several roles, including Schlemiel. The muddled Venetian Act didn’t make or break a production that was so suffused with surreal, phantasmagorical touches, but it stood out for not being as carefully considered as all that had come before—the constant doubling between Hoffmann and the women he loves, all of whom are depicted at various stages as sad drag queens in dishabille; how Olympia springs to seething life and dominates Hoffmann (in something very close to a rape) during her famous aria; Coppélius destroying a dummy of Hoffmann, rather than Olympia; Nicklausse’s seething jealousy, which expresses itself in her killing Antonia; the various ways in which Offenbach himself was woven into the production (my favorite example was the check Spalanzani writes to Coppélius payable by “le juif Offenbach”).   

Bregenz put together an energetic cast capable of bringing Herheim’s vision to life, with several vocal standouts. The most accomplished from this perspective was Michael Volle, much better here as the Four Villains (plus the tavern keeper Luther) than as a growling and rugged Scarpia in last season’s new Berlin Tosca. The German baritone sang with a perfect mixture of mischievousness and menace, projecting his crepuscular, richly textured voice effortlessly over the course of this deliciously wicked role. The audience rewarded his powerful, dramatically (and comically) charged performance with their loudest ovation. Behind him came the wonderful nebbish of Christophe Mortagne as the Three Servants, dressed throughout the show as Offenbach himself, and frequently mock-conducting the orchestra with a quill. Despite his wardrobe and makeup, the scene-chewing French tenor gave what was the most conventional and purely delightful account of a role in this eccentric production. Bengt-Ola Morgny and Ketil Hugaas were well cast as Spalazani and Crespel. As for the title role, Swedish tenor Daniel Johannson was hardly lacking in stamina and vocal heft, but one missed the impassioned lyricism and the drive that makes Hoffmann such a magnificent and unique character. Johansson remained in fine voice throughout the evening, and was certainly skilled at using his firm, assured voice at communicating anger and mock-heroic ardor, but the wild desperation that the role cries out for was mostly wanting. 

As far as Hoffmann’s women were concerned, Kertin Avemo made the strongest impression as Olympia, dispatching her famous aria with electrifyingly rapid and precise coloratura technique. Her lower notes were alluringly husky, while her stratospheric ones were brazenly triumphant. Herheim’s choice to have her sing in the fourth act did her few favors, however, and she made a weak impression during the opening barcarolle. As Nicklausse and The Muse, Rachel Frenkel, an Israeli mezzo, was frequently enchanting, nowhere more than during the version of “Des cendres de ton coeur” that she sang directly after the Olympia episode. As Antonia, Mandy Fredrich had the fullest vocal and coloristic range of the three, if not the most imposing stage presence. Pär (Pelle) Karlsson, the Swedish actor who pantomimed the role of Stella, was both physically imposing and strangely affecting in his pathetic delirium. 

The Wiener Symphoniker, the house band of the Bregenz Festival, performed an alert, brisk and colorful account of Offenbach’s madly tuneful score, under the direction of German conductor Johannes Debus. The Prague Philharmonic Chorus was thrilling and tightly unified throughout, while having obvious fun with all their vaudeville choreography (borrowings from Chaplin, Al Jolson and Fred Astaire) and numerous costume changes (the male chorus was often dressed entirely as Hoffmann). Luckily there will be more opportunities to savor this dazzling production in the not-too-distant future, since the Bregenz Hoffmann was a coproduction with Cologne and Copenhagen. —A. J. Goldmann

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