Benjamin Bernheim triumphs as Hoffmann at the Paris Opera

FranceFrance Offenbach, Les contes d’Hoffmann: Soloists, Paris Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Eun Sun Kim. Opéra national de Paris, Opéra Bastille, Paris, 15.12.2023. (RP)

Benjamin Bernheim (Hoffmann) © Emilie Brouchon

Director – Robert Carsen
Revival director – Marguerite Borie
Sets and Costumes – Michael Levine
Lighting – Jean Kalman
Choreography – Philippe Giraudeau
Dramaturgy – Ian Burton
Chorus master – Alessandro Di Stefano

Hoffmann – Benjamin Bernheim
Olympia – Pretty Yende
Giulietta – Antoinette Dennefeld
Antonia – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Lindorf / Coppélius / Dapertutto / Miracle – Christian Van Horn
Muse / Nicklausse – Angela Brower
Andrès / Cochenille / Pitichinaccio / Frantz – Leonardo Cortellazzi
Spalanzani – Christophe Mortagne
Nathanaël – Cyrille Lovighi
Hermann – Christian Rodrigue Moungoungou
Crespel / Luther – Vincent Le Texier
Voice of Antonia’s mother – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Schlémil – Alejandro Baliñas Vieites

Benjamin Bernheim reigned supreme in the Paris Opera revival of Robert Carsen’s production of Les contes d’Hoffmann. The French tenor, however, was hardly the only outstanding singer. From Pretty Yende’s dazzling, demented Olympia to Christian Van Horn’s suave, hitman-like take on Offenbach’s four personifications of evil, the cast was simply superb.

Carsen’s production, first seen in 2000, updates the action to the present day. The change hardly registers as his staging so effortlessly captures the spirit of the opera. Offenbach introduced Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the Prologue, and Carsen expands upon it by having a performance of the opera serve as the backdrop for Hoffmann to relate the story of his three fantastical, unrequited loves.

When one enters the house, the curtain is raised, and Hoffmann lies disheveled and spent on a bare stage amid sheets of paper and empty wine bottles. His Muse appears in the guise of a beautiful woman with long blond hair wearing a flowing white dress. In an instant, the bare stage is transformed into the bar of the opera house. The audience’s view is of the backside of the bar with bottles, glasses and kegs on full display. It is the stage for Hoffmann to sing his song about the dwarf Kleinzach, and for the chorus to rouse spirits with its lusty singing.

Act I takes place in the laboratory of the mad scientist Spalanzani, complete with bottles of eyeballs and other body parts. Wearing rose-colored glasses, Hoffmann is smitten with Olympia, Spalanzani’s creation. Coppélius, who supplied the eyeballs for which Spalanzani refuses to pay, brandishes a saw and foreshadows Olympia’s fate.

Antonia’s scene is observed from the perspective of the conductor. She has inherited both her mother’s fatal illness and her love of singing, which together will prove fatal. Her mother appears on the stage above the orchestra pit in a performance of Don Giovanni and, upon hearing her voice, Antonia sings herself to death.

The main hall of the opera house becomes Giulietta’s bordello with rows of seats gently swaying to the strains of the Barcarolle. It is a bit kitschy but charming in its way. Enthusiastic couplings of all sorts take place throughout the hall. The tawdriness aligns with Giulietta’s duplicity. She never loved Hoffmann: he served as a means for her to obtain the sparkling jewelry that Dapertutto dangled before her.

Having finished the story of his three loves, Hoffmann is back at the bar, where Nicklausse tells him that all three women were different aspects of Stella, the woman he truly loves. When Stella returns to find him drunk, she leaves with Lindorf, the rich councilor who has pursued her from the start. As the students call for more drinking, Nicklausse appears in her guise as the Muse, telling Hoffmann that love makes us great but tears even greater.

I lived in Zurich for several years, and when Bernheim appeared on the scene as a member of the International Opera Studio, one was immediately impressed by the beauty and exceptional clarity of his lyric tenor. With such a voice, his rise to international stardom comes as no surprise – his evolution into a consummate singing actor just a bit.

Bernheim captures all the contradictions in the poet’s complex personality. The sad-dog expressions on his face reflect Hoffmann’s frustrations in love and art. His face beams when transfixed by visions of beauty and love, as does his voice. His blazing high notes, however, came somewhat as a surprise: they were simply glorious.

Pretty Yende (Olympia) and Benjamin Bernheim (Hoffmann) © Emilie Brouchon

Pretty Yende is another singer that Zurich audiences heard early in her career. Those of us who saw Yende’s company debut in Bellini’s I puritani in 2016 will never forget her charisma and the silvery beauty of her voice. As Offenbach’s Olympia, a wide-eyed and wacky Yende dispatched Olympia’s roulades and trills brilliantly in a voice that has grown without losing any of its sparkle. Yende’s Olympia reached orgiastic heights of ecstasy straddled atop Bernheim’s Hoffmann on a hay wagon, which delighted the audience.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn has been a constant presence at the Metropolitan Opera, which is now my regular beat, for the past two seasons. He has done yeoman’s work in such roles as Colline in La bohème and the King in Aida. With Offenbach’s four villains, Paris Opera has given Van Horn roles that he can really sink his teeth into, and the result is wonderful. His dark, scintillating voice and sinister demeanor elicited a shiver of terror every time he appeared on stage.

In the dual roles of Hoffmann’s Muse and his friend Nicklausse, Angela Brower, with her supple mezzo-soprano and winning persona, was equally engaging. She was glamorous and mysterious as the Muse, while convincingly mannish as Nicklausse. Rachel Willis-Sørensen poured out waves of luscious sound as the tormented Antonia. As Giulietta, Antoinette Dennefeld was likewise resplendent, while exuding a crude demeanor as the calculating courtesan.

Among the other winning characterizations were Christophe Mortagne’s Spalanzani with his wild white hair standing on end, and the quadruple-cast Leonardo Cortellazzi (his deaf, befuddled Frantz was a standout). The fine baritone Alejandro Baliñas Vieites was dashing as the doomed Schlémil, Hoffmann’s rival for Giulietta’s love.

Eun Sun Kim drew exciting sound from the orchestra. They conveyed the myriad emotions, from ribald to tragic, that course through the score with transparent tones and vitalness. Kim’s sense of balance was so exact that it seemed as if singers and orchestra breathed and performed as one. It was an amazing feat, saluted by the audience as the curtain fell.

Rick Perdian

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