miércoles, septiembre 24, 2014

The quirkiness of opera: “The Tales of Hoffmann”

            "The Tales of Hoffmann" ("Les Contes d´Hoffmann") is a unique opera in the repertoire. It has no influences and it inhabits a world of its own. The posthumous masterpiece of Jacques Offenbach, the creator of operetta as a genre, has remnants of that style but basically it shows a degree of musical imagination and of technical command that are absolutely amazing.

            The Colón offered it in 1921 and 1936, but where it really had a definitive lease of life was with the splendid presentation of 1969 (Maag, Erlo, Bacquier, Konya, Mesplé, Harper). Afterwards in different productions it was revived in 1972, 1980, 1993 (a splendid Alfredo Kraus), 1994 and 2001 (with Neil Shicoff).  From then on, various alternative companies have staged it, including Juventus Lyrica some years ago. It was Juventus that  insisted now with this work, then and now with a production by Ana D´Anna, but this time with many aspects reconsidered.

            This opera  has a Prologue and Epilogue at a tavern, and then successive acts about Olympia,  the automat doll; Giulietta, the Venetian courtisan; and Antonia, a young singer with a bad heart. In all, the protagonist is  Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, famous for his tales both fantasmagoric  and  supernatural (by the way, he was also a composer and wrote ten operas!).

             Three of them were chosen by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré  for their 1851 "fantastic drama"; Barbier (minus Carré, who had died) adapted it as a libretto for Offenbach, who passed away in October 1880 leaving the opera practically finished, although it was presented at the Opéra Comique on February 10th 1881 with recitatives and part of the scoring by Ernest Guiraud (the same composer who did the recitatives in "Carmen").  As there are variations in the editions, the Juventus programme should have been clear about which one was used. Anyway, this one had the presence of the Muse (spoken part), put the Giulietta story second instead of Antonia´s (I agree), and presented some musical fragments that aren´t habitual.

            I read elsewhere that in this opera it´s the ensemble that counts and the quality of the voices secondary; I disagree on the second point, the vocality is difficult in several parts and the protagonist has an exhausting participation with plenty of high notes. It is  one of the most trying roles in French opera. As a character he is so ingenuous and blind to realities that I believe Hoffmann the writer would have been appalled to become such a personage, and the Barbier libretto, whilst witty and expressive, has its weak points, especially in the very chequered Venice Act. But the music is so beautiful most of the time that it sweeps all before it.

            I have no doubt that this one of D´Anna´s best jobs. The most positive thing is that the show has continuity, everyone has the proper movements for its character: even the chorus acts with total involvement. Add to it the fact that she aims at an early Nineteenth Century ambience, in which she is helped by the very attractive costumes created by her daughter María Jaunarena, and that the stage designs and lighting of Gonzalo Córdova are sufficiently suggestive, though of course the budget of a private company isn´t quite up to the display that "....Hoffmann" ideally should have.

             Faults: the mediocrity of the makeup, that gives us a young villain as well as a young Crespel (Antonia´s father) when both are old. And the four villains (played of course as Offenbach wanted by a single bass-baritone) don´t look sinister enough.  There are more : Antonia´s mother should be a disembodied voice, not a presence on stage; and the Muse should be subtler, less erotic, and not be present in the final scene. But the end result is certainly positive.

            I was quite happy with the brio of the orchestra (except some acidity from the violins) and the fine agreement with the stage shown by the young Brazilian conductor André Dos Santos, and the Chorus was splendid in every way under Hernán Sánchez Arteaga.

            I write about the second cast (the first is mentioned between brackets when it is different). As Hoffmann Enrique Folger (Mariano Spagnolo) seems to be passing through a difficult patch; the voice is big but the control of it wavers a lot and the timbre is often harsh; but he is intense and communicative. The villains (Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle) were taken by a young bass-baritone, tall and thin, with a very short previous experience: Felipe Cudina Begovic (Pol González); although the voice is serviceable, he sounded and acted very green, as well as having awful French. Norberto Lara was a funny clownish Spalanzani; Pablo Scaiola sounded firm as Crespel (a replacement for Juan Font); Darío Leoncini was quite colorless as Frantz (Scaiola); the others were in the picture.

            Laura Pisani (Natalia Quiroga Romero) was a spectacular doll, with added super-high florid singing. Although very sonorous, Eugenia Fuente (Ivana Ledesma)  was miscast as Giulietta. María Belén Rivarola (Carolina Gómez) did well as Antonia, although the part needs a more radiant voice. Vanina Guilledo (Griselda Adano) acted nicely as Nicklausse (a trouser role) though she sang a  bit incisively. Adano (Guilledo) doesn´t have the warm voice the Mother needs. Laura D´Anna as the Muse had good French but her timbre isn´t ingratiating.

            All in all, a good "....Hoffmann".

For Buenos Aires Herald 

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