Les Contes d’Hoffmann
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Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Komische Oper Berlin

WHILE BERLIN'S OTHER TWO OPERA HOUSES were celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of German Unification with star-studded productions of Wagner and Meyerbeer, the Komische Oper Berlin decided to refresh one of the most popular works in the history of the company, Les Contes d’Hoffmann (seen Oct. 14).

For its new production by Barrie Kosky, the Komische endorsed the recently published critical edition of Hoffmann by the American musicologist Michael Kaye, which includes contributions from the French musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck. Given its complex history, Hoffmann is a fascinatingly-shape shifting work. Composer Jacques Offenbach died four months before the work’s official first public performance, at the Opéra Comique, in February 1881, in an edition completed by Ernest Guiraud—the first of several performing editions the opera enjoyed before the Fritz Oeser “restoration” from 1976. The Oeser Hoffmann featured an expanded role for Nicklausse, who (we now know) also doubles as Hoffmann’s muse; in the present realization by Kaye, the Muse’s role is even more fully fleshed out. The new edition’s most significant changes are to the Giulietta segment, which beyond the actual quality of the musical additions (indeed, Giulietta’s newly restored seduction aria struck me as a tad pedestrian on first hearing), yields a darker and dramatically more satisfying tale than the familiar (and long standard) Choudens edition from 1907 or the Oeser. But I didn’t quite know what to make of this new version’s decision to include “Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre,” in the Giulietta episode; and the alternative diamond aria that Dapertutto now sings is hardly in the same league as “Scintille, diamant,” no matter who wrote it. Naturally, the famous septet was dispensed with, although compellingly wisps and traces of it haunted the episode, which fed into a greatly truncated version of the epilogue and was here staged as a fatal conclusion to the final tale. 

In his production, Kosky showed a strangely lopsided fidelity to Offenbach. Yes, we only heard music that Offenbach himself actually wrote but the director’s decision to introduce a speaking Hoffmann into the work (the wonderfully expressive if grating Uwe Schönbeck) caused the production to drag, especially at the beginning and end of the evening. Frequently wheezing and stuttering, Schönbeck declaimed lengthy passages (in German) from the E.T.A. Hoffmann story “Don Juan,” about a writer who has a feverishly intense experience during a performance of Don Giovanni. The tale was clearly Kosky’s point of entry into this production which opened irreverently with the overture to Don Giovanni (Offenbach’s own fanfare-like overture was scrapped for this staging), and ended with a mournful “La ci darem la mano,” croaked by Schönbeck and sung by the Muse, as she nailed the poet shut inside a coffin. 

In between, Kosky had many elegant and intelligent ideas to fill the intervening three hours. In his past three seasons as the Komische’s intendant, we’ve got to know Kosky the maximalist (his overstuffed extravaganzas Ball im Savoy and La Belle Hélène) and Kosky the minimalist (Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with little more than a spot light and a curtain, an elegantly pared-down Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria as part of the ambitious Monteverdi Trilogy). Kosky’s take on Hoffmann had elements of both approaches. The stage was dominated by a diamond-shaped platform that was frequently raised and lowered during the evening. While props were plentiful, especially in the Olympia segment, with a kooky assortment of fake limbs, eyeballs and the like, the stage never seemed overstuffed. In fact, Kosky often reinforced a sense of claustrophobia and confinement. Olympia was housed inside of oblong dresser whose draws opened to reveal various (real and prosthetic) segments of her body; the Hoffmann of the Giulietta episode sang arduously from inside an upright coffin; and Antonia was attacked with violin bows by a silent chorus of her mother, women who all bore a striking resemblance to Mrs. Bates from Psycho

The fantastical and phantasmagoric aspects of Hoffmann have exerted a deep fascination on directors. I had expected Kosky to take a thoroughly batty and surreal approach, perhaps similar to the exhaustingly intricate production Stefan Herheim served up over the summer at the Bregenz Festival. Instead, this often-flamboyant intendant showed an unexpected amount of severity and restraint, opting for a largely monochromatic and simple staging than was largely propelled forward by the dramatically robust and musically persuasive cast. 

Schönbeck was one of three Hoffmanns on offer. Kosky, harkening back to an original (and abandoned) inspiration of the composer, decided to cast a baritone as the Hoffmann in Luther’s Tavern and the Olympia tale. The strapping house baritone Dominik Köninger cut a much finer figure here than he did as the lead in last season’s Giulio Cesare. Still, “Kleinzack” did suffer from having notes transposed downward, and the first iterations of Hoffmann’s ardor were somewhat dampened by the lower tones, although Köninger occasionally lent a clarion shine to his top notes. When the Australian tenor Alexander Lewis took over in the Antonia episode, one wondered where he had been all night. A recent graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Lewis sang with fresh and exciting ardor over the course of the last two tales. It was a heady and, in the case of the Giulietta episode, sordidly sexual portrayal that combined lyric urgency with vocal purity and heft. 

Nicole Chevalier, who is fast becoming the Komische’s star soprano, showed chameleon-like agility in singing all the heroines. Her Olympia was the most idiosyncratic, ornamented as it was with a host of additional vocal effects to imitate the doll’s internal combustions. For this reason, her coloratura—impressive as it was—was far from a demonstration of flawless technical refinement. She had the audience screeching with her zany, Chuck Jones-like sound effects. Chevalier proved a capable lyric soprano as Antonia, and it was such a convincing transformation that I doubt whether audience members without programs even registered that it was the same singer. And she turned sultry and darkly seductive as Giulietta (alongside Lewis), although by this point in the evening, she sounded somewhat worn down by her marathon performance. But seriously, who could blame her? 

The most consistently impressive vocalist of the evening was Alexandra Kadurina, the Ukrainian mezzo-soprano who sang Nicklausse/The Muse and—why not?—Antonia’s mother. She never sounded less than bold and inspired, singing to the hilt with swagger, verve and a devil-may-care attitude. That she is scheduled to sing Octavian at the Bolshoi over the summer sounds like very good news indeed. Ivan Tursic, a brand new ensemble addition, lent his comically neurotic tenor to Andrès, Spalanzani and Pitichinaccio. The usually excellent house bass Jens Larsen sadly didn’t leave much of an impression as the four villains. He sounded routinely gruff and unable to fold sardonic relish into his portrayals, which made his genuinely menacing Docteur Miracle the strongest of the crop. 

After last season’s rousing Offenbach romp of La Belle Hélène, the KOB orchestra was in spirited, glittery form under the direction of Daniel Huppert, the young GMD of the opera and orchestra in Schwerin. The chorus supplemented them and the soloists nicely, singing with enthusiasm, unity and surprisingly crisp, convincing French. 

Although Kosky has furnished his house with a new and largely successful production, I was sad to say goodbye to the Komische’s previous Hoffmann. Thilo Rheinhardt’s riotously colorful 2007 staging that was perhaps the company’s single finest staging of the pre-Kosky era, despite being based on the Oeser edition and a having suffered from a clumsy German-language translation.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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