Munich’s timely birthday anniversary revival of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann

GermanyGermany Offenbach, Les contes d’Hoffmann: Soloists, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Statisterie Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Constantin Trinks (conductor), Nationaltheater, Munich, 11.10.2019. (MC)

Bayerischen Staatsoper’s Les contes d’Hoffmann © W. Hösl

Production:                                                                                                                    Stage director – Richard Jones
Revival director – Anna Brunnlechner
Sets – Giles Cadle
Lighting – Mimi Jordan Sherin
Choreography – Lucy Burge
Chorus master – Stellario Fagone
Dramaturgy – Rainer Karlitschek

Olympia – Nina Minasyan
Antonia – Sarah-Jane Brandon
Giulietta – Simona Mihai
Stella – Serena Buchner
Cochenille, Pitichinaccio, Frantz – Kevin Conners
Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr Miracle – Alex Esposito
Nicklausse, Muse – Michèle Losier
Voice from the grave – Noa Beinart
Hoffmann – Michael Spyres
Spalanzani – Ulrich Reß
Nathanaël – Manuel Günther
Hermann – Boris Prýgl
Schlémil – Christian Rieger
Wilhelm – George Vîrban
Crespel, Luther – Martin Snell

The highlight of my Munich trip was this timely revival of Offenbach’s masterpiece Les contes d’Hoffmann being staged by the Bayerischen Staatsoper in the two hundredth anniversary year of the birth of this underrated German/French composer. After several years I became reacquainted with the opera thanks to Stefan Herheim’s controversial 2015 staging at the Bregenz Festival with Daniel Johansson in the title role and Michael Volle playing the four villains and innkeeper Luther.

Offenbach a prolific composer of over a hundred stage works became famous for developing the genre of ‘French operetta’. Spending almost twenty years writing Les contes d’Hoffmann Offenbach tragically died before what was to be his swansong was quite finished. It was Ernest Guiraud who orchestrated a performing version. Described by the composer as an opéra fantastique the première of Les contes d’Hoffmann was given some four months after Offenbach’s death at the Opéra-Comique, Paris in 1881. I notice this revival of Richard Jones’s production for the Bayerischen Staatsoper was premièred eight years ago in October 2011 at Nationaltheater, Munich with star soloists Rolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Diana Damrau singing the four heroines.

The opera centres around the lovesick protagonist Hoffman, a poet whose infatuation with four women leaves him in a wretched state, looking for solace in the liquor bottle. Offenbach felt the four soprano roles Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta and Stella would be sung by a single soprano which was not the case here tonight, while the four villains should be played by the same singer as they were here by Alex Esposito. Without doubt Offenbach’s catchy, appealing music can stay with the listener long after the performance.

Drawing one into the action this Richard Jones revival provides a highly entertaining, quick moving spectacle which not surprisingly given the composer’s background displays operetta-like characteristics. Jones doesn’t over complicate what can be an already perplexing plot especially for the newly initiated. Certainly, over the years there have been far more sumptuous sets for Les contes d’Hoffmann, yet Giles Cadle’s clever design works exceedingly well. It is relatively straightforward employing a geometric scheme that’s easy on the eye with a curious greenish hue. Maintaining the core structure of the set throughout, by keeping the hallway at the left-hand side and the eye-catching glass roof atrium, allows various adaptations to be simply made for each scene. Worthy of praise too is designer Buki Shiff for creating a colourful array of costumes full of detail, rather in the spirit of a pantomime.

Hoffmann decked out primarily in brown cord jacket, mustard waistcoat and light brown check trousers was commendably played by Michael Spyres. An assured artist who acts and sings convincingly the American tenor is well suited to the considerable demands of the role although he can’t match the personality or the distinctive voice of Villazón. Spyres produces an attractive tone with a pleasing array of colours especially in his excellent mid and lower register. There was some slight unevenness at times but overall, he handled the demands of the role well. Canadian mezzo soprano Michèle Losier sang the role of Hoffmann’s sidekick Nicklausse and Muse. Looking like a younger version of Hoffmann, wearing pretty much the same outfit complete with sideburns, although wearing short pants. No problems whatsoever with Losier who sang successfully throughout in this renowned trouser role, which has become somewhat of a speciality for her.

In inventor Spalanzani’s workshop his mechanical doll Olympia wore a powder blue dress and coiffured blonde wig positioned for most of the time on the edge of a small stage with her fake legs dangling out. As Olympia, Armenian soprano Nina Minasyan sang delightfully and her celebrated coloratura aria ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ known as ‘The Doll Song’ created a quite magical impression. The young girl Antonia – a singer frail from consumption who has been taken to Munich by her father – was sung impressively by Sarah-Jane Brandon looking demure in her white dress. South Africa born Brandon effectively displayed her soprano that was both smooth and secure. Looking suitably brassy, the Venetian courtesan Giulietta played by Simona Mihai was robed in a dark red dress an ideal match for her long, flaming red hair. Singing with vitality and feistiness the Romanian-born British Mihai demonstrated her admirable high register. Assured bass-baritone Alex Esposito excelled as the four villains Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto and Dr Miracle. In vibrantly expressive voice throughout the Italian certainly has stage presence and acts well.

The augmented Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper was smartly decked out in matching collegiate style clothing. Clearly well prepared by Stellario Fagone the chorus sounded splendid with the hearty male voices making quite an impression from start to finish. With a calm hand Constantin Trinks conducted the Bayerisches Staatsorchester in a convincing performance that was especially alert and well unified. My only grumble concerns the notice that the French libretto was given German and English surtitles. Thankfully I know the opera quite well as from my side position only the German surtitles were visible.

This Bayerischen Staatsoper production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann is marvellous entertainment and I cannot recommend it highly enough. My hope is that one of these performances is soon made available on film.

Michael Cookson

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