United Kingdom Offenbach, Tales of Hoffmann: English Touring Opera and Orchestra /Philip Sunderland (conductor), Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, 10.10.15 (RB)
Hoffmann: Sam Furness
Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella: Ilona Domnich
Muse/Nicklausse/Mother: Louise Mott
Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr Miracle/Dappertutto: Warwick Fyfe
Nathaniel/Spalanzani/Pitichinaccio: Adam Tunicliffe
Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz: Matt J Ward
Luther/Crespel: Tim Dawkins
Schlémil: Ashley Mercer
Director: James Bonas
Designer: Oliver Townsend
Lighting Designer: Mark Howland
Choreographer: Ewan Jones
Video Design: Zakk Hein
Offenbach’s final operetta links together a number of ETA Hoffmann’s dark, macabre and fantastical stories by providing us with an overarching narrative of the alcoholic poet (Hoffmann himself) who tries to find love from a mechanical doll (Olympia), a woman dying of a musical malaise (Antonia) and a Venetian courtesan (Giulietta). Each of these women represent idealised elements of the poet’s true love Stella. Hoffmann is unable to attain true love and at the end of the opera he is consumed by his addiction and retreats into the black world of his imagination. Offenbach gives us some of his most lavish and romantic music for this work including the famous Barcarolle while at the same time injecting it with a pitch black humour. It is difficult to balance the different elements in any production of this work and for the most part the English Touring Opera have done a great job.
James Bonas’ production sees the eponymous narrator as a director of silent movies and the work opens with the credits for a Hollywood silent movie being projected on to a cinema screen while Sam Furness’ Hoffmann sits watching whilst blowing smoke rings into the air. We then see Hoffmann’s muse Stella in three films playing the aforementioned roles of Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta. The performers used silent film techniques throughout and this was particularly effective in the prologue where there was some brilliant ventriloquism and slapstick comedy and the Antonia Act where Warwick Fyfe transformed into Nosferatu, the vampire and expressionist shadows were projected on to the walls of the set. I also liked the mad Dr Frankenstein routine at the beginning of the Olympia Act (with perhaps a touch of Rocky Horror thrown in!) but was less convinced by the section where the mechanical doll, Olympia, comes to life – we saw Sam Furness dance with an illuminated mannequin while Ilona Domnich is helping to manipulate the doll while providing the vocals. It was certainly in keeping with Hoffmann’s surreal imagination but it came across as slightly awkward and was not dramatically convincing. It would have been better to dispense with the doll prop altogether and to use Domnich’s considerable acting skills. I liked the concept of framing the work within a silent movie but I think the ideas could usefully be developed and fine tuned further. For example, I thought there was scope to make more of the dark and macabre elements in the prologue and Olympia Acts.
The cast were on fine form and for the most part did a splendid job with Offenbach’s lush score while at the same time bringing to life Hoffmann’s extraordinary world with some bravura acting. Sam Furness has a lyrical tenor voice and he did a great job with Kleinzach’s aria in the prologue which he sang with tongue in cheek heroic gusto. Occasionally, I would have welcomed a little more vocal heft from Furness although he delivered well in the incendiary scenes in the Antonia and Giulietta Acts where he gave us some thrilling singing and a ravishing beauty of tone. Ilona Domnich has a gorgeous lustre to her voice and gave us some exquisitely tapered and elegant phrasing. She coped reasonably well but with the high coloratura in the ‘Doll’ aria although the intonation was not quite right at the top of the vocal range. Her transformations into the fragile but doomed Antonia and the beguiling Giulietta were better where she gave us some ravishing singing. Warwick Fyfe has a very powerful and focused baritone voice and he brought some rich dark timbres to the operetta’s various incarnations of evil. Occasionally, the tone sounded a little too overpowering for the Britten Theatre auditorium but I particularly liked his depiction of Dr Miracle in the Antonia Act. Louise Mott did a good job in her mistress of ceremonies role and I enjoyed her transformation into the Billy Bunter-like Nicklausse and the subversive humour she brought to the role. Her singing was solid in the prologue and became increasingly accomplished as the work progressed – she gave us some of her best singing when she transformed into Antonia’s mother.
Conductor Philip Sunderland did a good job maximising the potential of his small band of players and in keeping the singer and players on track. The tempo transitions were well judged and the small chamber orchestra brought out the rich colour and vibrancy of Offenbach’s score. The ensemble work with the cast was excellent and I was particularly impressed with the set piece numbers in the prologue which were delivered with perfect comic timing, and the powerful and sinister numbers in the Antonia Act. However, I was slightly disappointed with the famous Barcarolle where the two sopranos did not blend or capture the sensual beauty of the duet as well as they might. The supporting cast were all superb in their roles and they did well to cover such a wide range of ground between them and to characterise each of the distinctive roles so convincingly.
Overall, this was a highly inventive and imaginative production featuring some first rate singing and acting from the cast.