The Tales of Hoffmann is Welcomed Back to Helsinski

FinlandFinland Offenbach, Les contes d’HoffmannSoloists, Finnish National Opera Chorus & Orchestra / Patrick Fournillier (conductor) Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 19.10.2018. (GF)

Les contes d’Hoffmann ©Heikki Tuuli/FNO


Director – Johannes Erath
Sets – Heiki Scheele
Costumes – Gesine Völlm
Lighting design – Fabio Antoci
Video design – Alexander Scherpink


Hoffmann – Dominik Sutowicz
Muse/Nicklausse – Jenny Carlstedt
Olympia – Rocío Pérez
Antonia – Helena Juntunen
Giulietta – Measha Brueggergosman
Lindorf/Coppelius/Dapertutto/Miracle – Franco Pomponi
Andreas/Cochenille/Pitichinaccio/Frantz – Dan Karlström
Spalanzani – Roland Liiv
Schlemihl/Hermann – Robert McLoud
Crespel/Luther – Koit Soasepp
Mother – Sari Nordqvist
Nathanael – Matias Haakana
Wilhelm – Ari Hosio

Les contes d’Hoffmann hasn’t been seen at the Finnish National Opera since the 1960s, high time for a new production. This one hails from the Semperoper in Dresden and is certainly spectacular and filled with action – in fact too much for my taste, with several activities often going on simultaneously. I have only once before, as far as I remember, experienced Johannes Erath’s direction, and that was in Hamburg some five years ago in a production of La traviata, in which background activities tended to divert attention from the main action, although La traviata is a well-structured drama with a very clear message and easy to follow nonetheless. Hoffmann on the other hand, subtitled ‘Opéra Fantastique’, is a sprawling work of which there is not even a definitive version, since Offenbach died before he could finish it. He had completed the piano score and orchestrated the prologue and the first act. Before the premiere Ernest Guiraud – who also provided the recitatives for Bizet’s Carmen – completed the orchestration and wrote recitatives. Directors and conductors thus have several options to choose from: spoken dialogue or recitatives (for a performance with a native French-speaking cast the former alternative is possible – otherwise, hardly); the order of the acts (Offenbach’s was Prologue–Olympia–Antonia–Giulietta–Epilogue, and this is the order at the FNO, but they name the Prologue Act I and the Epilogue Act V); the number of singers for the female roles (Offenbach wanted the same soprano for Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta since they are three facets of Stella, the actress Hoffmann is in love with). However the three characters require three very different voice types: Olympia a coloratura soprano with stratospheric top notes, Antonia a lyric soprano and Giulietta a dramatic soprano or even a mezzo-soprano, and this is the FNO solution. To mark the affinity they are dressed in the same kind of white tulle dresses, as is the Muse, who in the Epilogue declares her love to Hoffmann. There is inclusion of music not intended for the opera, whereas the well-known ‘Diamond aria’ that Dapertutto sings in the Giulietta act is a late addition from the early 20th century and excluded here, possibly to some opera lovers’ disappointment. The edition used here is by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, and they claim that it is as close to Offenbach’s intention as possible.

Musically this is an utterly convincing production and scenically it works very well too, even though, as mentioned above, it is a bit overloaded, there are video projections and there are symbols, the meaning of which eludes me. If there are obscurities in that respect, the shaping of the individual characters is all the more distinct. This confirms my impression from the aforementioned Traviata production, where I thought that the creation of believable personalities was Johannes Erath’s strongest suit. He also includes the auditorium in the proceedings. Characters, sometimes the whole chorus, appear on a balcony and a dialogue between a character on the stage and one in the auditorium takes place. After the orchestral prelude, the opera begins with Nicklausse popping up at the front of the stalls, addressing the audience and thus catching everyone’s attention. Jenny Carlstedt is superb in the role, with masterly timing and excellent singing. And this goes for the rest of the ensemble as well.

Franco Pomponi, dark, elegant and Clark Gable-like in the four evil roles, begins rather roughly but soon finds his way and dramatically he is first class. Polish tenor Dominik Sutowicz in the demanding title role has both the heft and the lyric nuances and mirrors the various mental conditions of his character convincingly. Spanish soprano Rocío Pérez sports a hilariously high and weightless coloratura – and on top of that she even dances en pointe. Helena Juntunen gives a touching portrait of the sick and frail Antonia and sings beautifully, while Canadian star Measha Brueggergosman is a seductive Giulietta and sings, with or without the microphone, just as ravishingly as she did on her debut recital disc, which I reviewed for MusicWeb ten years ago. How time flies! In smaller roles Koit Soasepp (Crespel and Luther) is as dependable as always and Dan Karlström in the four servant roles steals the show in Frantz’s comic couplets in the Antonia act. Patrick Fournillier, principal guest conductor at the FNO, leads the proceedings with excellent playing and singing of the FNO forces.

Welcome back to Helsinki, Hoffmann, after fifty years’ absence!

Göran Forsling

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