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

Opéra National de Paris

In Review Paris Opera Hoffmann hdl 217
Vargas as Hoffmann in Paris Opera’s revival of Carsen’s staging
© Julien Benhamou/Opéra National de Paris

THE PARIS OPÉRA'S  much-anticipated revival of Robert Carsen’s Contes d’Hoffmann production bid fair to be one of the highlights of the season, promising Paris audiences Jonas Kaufmann’s first Hoffmann and Sabine Devieilhe’s Olympia. But the indisposition of the tenor and the pregnancy of the soprano robbed the evening of some of its star power. Fortunately, the Opéra was able to persuade the Met to release Ramón Vargas from his scheduled New York appearances as Don Ottavio; on November 3, under the baton of music director Philippe Jordan, the veteran Mexican tenor brought his well-practiced Hoffmann to the Paris stage, and rising star Nadine Koutcher stepped into the role of Olympia.

This 2000 staging is one of Carsen’s best productions for the house; the gentle theater-within-a-theater concept wears its years lightly, although some of the more detailed acting was lost at this revival. Jordan brought the same refined elegance and wealth of orchestral detail to Les Contes d’Hoffmann that he had shown earlier in the season in Samson et Dalila, but he never found a sufficiently crisp dramatic attack for Offenbach’s operatic swansong. A vulgar cut-and-thrust approach is alien to this music director’s nature, but an occasional touch of extrovert theatricality would be welcome. 

The chorus, which had been exemplary in the Saint-Saëns, was less pristine in the Offenbach, with frequent lapses of ensemble on opening night. It was a pleasure to hear a largely French supporting cast using the language stylishly, with a special mention for four comic roles handled by Yann Beuron, a tenor who in a smaller theater would make an excellent Hoffmann. As the antihero, Vargas was a model of technical security. A few high notes were squeezed, and his French diction remains exotic, but the elegance of Vargas’s performance triumphed. Also at her very best was Stéphanie d’Oustrac in the role of the Muse; the mezzo’s blossoming tone was coupled with stylish projection, fulfilling all her youthful promise. As Antonia, Ermonela Jaho began poorly, with a fluttery “Elle a fui, la tourterelle,” but gained in authority with some shining high notes and elegiac phrasing. Kate Aldrich’s Giulietta looked like a million dollars, but the size and acoustics of the Bastille were not always helpful to the mezzo, who did not project a strong vocal profile.

The first Olympia in this production was Natalie Dessay, then at the very top of her game; her performance casts a shadow over all sopranos who take on Carsen’s naughty, shiny plastic doll. Koutcher essayed a clumsy android figure that garnered applause for some spectacular variations to the second verse of her aria but over-weighted the easier stretches of the piece, which diminished the effect of the pyrotechnics. Roberto Tagliavini lacked menace as the four villains but sang with focused bass tone and offered a fine account of Dappertutto’s spuriously placed “Scintille, diamant.”

In the light of recent research by musicologist and Offenbach scholar Jean-Christophe Keck, it seems unadventurous to perform Les Contes d’Hoffmann with corrupt recitatives and a final act far removed from the composer’s intentions. Authenticity is now de rigueur for Baroque and Classical works; perhaps the time has come at the national house to represent one of the masterpieces of the French repertoire more faithfully.  —Stephen J. Mudge

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