Covent Garden’s Revived Tales of Hoffmann Plods Along Despite Excellent Singing

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann (cinema broadcast): Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding), Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Evelino Pidò (conductor), Royal Opera House, London.  (Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London), 15.11.2016. (MB)

Sofia Fomina (Olympia), Christophe Mortagne (Spalanzani) & Vittorio Grigòlo (Hoffmann)
(c) Catherine Ashmore

Hoffmann – Vittorio Grigòlo
Four Villains – Thomas Hampson
Olympia – Sofia Fomina
Giulietta – Christine Rice
Antonia – Sonya Yoncheva
Nicklausse – Kate Lindsey
Spalanzani – Christophe Montagne
Crespel – Eric Halfvarson
Four Servants – Vincent Ordonneau
Spirit of Antonia’s Mother – Catherine Carby
Nathanael – David Junghoon Kim
Hermann – Charles Rice
Schlemil – Yuriy Yurchuk
Luther – Jeremy White
Stella – Olga Sabadoch

John Schlesinger (director)
Daniel Dooner (revival director)
William Dudley (set designs)
David Hersey (lighting)
Maria Björnson (costumes)
Eleanor Fazan (choreography)

Oh dear! One might travel far before seeing so dramatically inert a production of anything. ‘Revived’ is hardly the mot juste here by Daniel Dooner; pretty much the only saving grace accompanying this ancient staging by John Schlesinger was the news that it will be its last. In vain did one seek for irony. Offenbach’s taste and wit, it seemed, had been paid off, with a generous settlement. Indeed, one sensed that one Manhattan-based master of ‘settlements’ and theatrical criticism would have approved, together with his chums in the bizarre ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ group. As for the edition used, the less said the better, but imagine the outcry if Bruckner performances were still being given in the Schalk ‘versions’ – perhaps with a few odds and ends thrown in for the hell of it. This, as Mahler would have put it, was tradition as Schlamperei.

For the designs – there is nothing more to the production, certainly no hint of a critical stance, let alone a Konzept – speak of vulgar ostentation. Although ostensibly set when it ‘should’ be, earlier in the nineteenth century, this looked more like a Second Empire recreation, albeit one that had seen better days. The Palais Garnier is a thing of wonder; if you are going to do ‘style of Napoleon III’, then go all out for it. This, however, is not; it is merely tedious. If the æsthetic aspired to Donald Trump, it ended up being more minor West End musical. If ‘lavish’, for some unfathomable reason, is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Offenbach, then I suppose you might have liked this, but surely anyone would have baulked at the bizarre, am-dram over-acting of some members of the chorus. Perhaps that was a matter of cinematic close-up, but it was at best an occasion, well-taken (unfortunately) for laughter. At any rate, for an evening that dragged so, I was grateful to be seated in the comfort of the Curzon Mayfair rather than squeezed into the Royal Opera House’s Amphitheatre.

That it dragged was also the fault of Evelino Pidò’s leaden conducting. There was no lightness, no air, no direction, just endless plodding through. Offenbach’s musical drama – and I am far from convinced he is at his most successful in this work – is a delicate flower. The score simply sounded suffocated.

At least the singing was better. Vittorio Grigòlo’s untiring commitment put me in mind of Roberto Alagna, although vocally, Grigòlo was certainly more secure than his mercurial counterpart can sometimes be. Stylistically, his voice and manner are perhaps not ideal, but there was much to be enjoy. (As you will have guessed, I took what I could.) Kate Lindsey impressed greatly as Nicklausse, in a stylish, equally committed performance. She can act too, and did. Christine Rice’s Giulietta brought a touch of vocal opulence. It was neither unwelcome nor inappropriate, tempered as it was with taste, quite unlike its scenic equivalent (For her act, Schlesinger seemed to have in mind, quite without irony, or indeed without eroticism, the world of ‘vintage’ soft porn. Again, laughter ensued.) Sofia Fomina handled the challenges of Olympia’s coloratura with ease, and portrayed the very particular acting challenges of her doll’s role convincingly. Sonya Yoncheva’s Antonia was sincere enough, but it sounded as if she would have been happier singing Verdi. Catherine Carby’s brief appearance as her mother brought much needed relief. Thomas Hampson’s performances suggested that his voice is now seriously beyond repair. Not only, as one might have suspected, did the lower notes lie awkwardly for him; so did many at the top too. Smaller roles were taken well; David Junghoon Kim’s Nathanael caught my ear.

As theatre, though, this was strictly for those who like to applaud scenery. And even they might have preferred to check into a certain Washington hotel for the real thing.

Mark Berry

Jim Pritchard reviewed the first night at Covent Garden and to see his review click here.

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