Les Contes d’Hoffmann - Royal Opera House, 25 November 2008 (opening night)
His sensational Hoffmann at Covent Garden just four years ago made Rolando Villazón a household name. In this household anyway. Since then he's risen, fallen, faked it onscreen with Netrebko, outshone the scenery in Mr Hytner's recent Don Lego, gone Panstik-crazy in Onegin, and even found time to take half a year off. So expectations were ----- mixed.
This performance saw an older and wiser Villazón. A new word has entered his vocabulary - restraint. Not every second on stage blew my socks off - he sensibly paced himself, taking the long-term view and conserving his voice at the start to make sure it was still there at the end.
His vocal everest came in the high-lying Giulietta act (the second act here), where his top notes were hard-won, but cleanly struck, with not a hint of the dreaded crack. He audibly relaxed as he came into the home straight, and here we heard him at his very best - ardent and secure, with that fabulous ring at the edge.
The character of Hoffman is a gift to a versatile actor. A great physical comedian, Rolando was predictably at home with the drunken lurching and grotesque posturing of the Kleinzach song. But equally accomplished was the sudden switch to nostalgic reverie as he recalled his beloved.
The ancient and all too literal production doesn't hint at the passage of time. This was something Rolando supplied himself, with unexpectedly great subtlety, chronicling Hoffman's descent from naive and exuberant young poet (the Rolando we know and love) to a battered and cynical alcoholic. An intelligent and complete portrayal, and what's more, a bravely vulnerable one.
****Rolando Villazón and Gidon Saks talk to Radio 3's In Tune here (available until 27 November) - Rolando reveals that years ago he used to watch his hero Domingo in the video of the original production (ahhhh, schweet!)****
Nobody else really came close, though the veteran character tenor Graham Clark was tremendous fun in his multiple roles as the four servants, and, unbelievably, sounding as fresh as he does on twenty year old Bayreuth recordings.
Gidon Saks had the other big part, Hoffman's quadruple nemesis, the four villains. He'd done a pretty good job with individual characterisation in the general rehearsal, but was curiously anonymous on this, the big night. Only his Dr Miracle had the necessary presence and malevolence - his other roles were dry-toned and underbaked.
Ekaterina Lekhina's Olympia was an audience favourite. Her tiny exquisite features and jerky clockwork movement made her an eerily believable doll. Musically, the line was hardly smooth, perhaps consciously sacrificed for dramatic effect, but she had all the notes spot on.
Christine Rice played the courtesan Giulietta as if through Hoffmann's eyes, a romanticised and unattainable love object, not a pricy tart with an eye for a bob on the side. An intelligent portrayal sung with velvety warmth, but the steamy sensuality that should pervade this scene came only from the assorted couples scattered about the opulent rugs, not from its centre. Momentum quietly fizzled away; any dramatic tension collapsed slowly and predictably as a souffle. Lovely frocks though.
And a special mention for Kostas Smoriginas as Schlemil - a commanding voice and presence with top sword skillz, looking like a young Helmut Berger in his blond wig.
Katie Van Kooten as Antonia sang beautifully and had everything except the vulnerability that could make you root for her. Gaynor Keeble as the spirit of her mother was truly affecting, and the most memorable of the mostly well-taken smaller parts.
This is really a singers' opera, not an orchestral showpiece, and there was fine support from the pit. Pappano kept it light and playful, and wasn't tempted to pull things around unnecessarily. He was marvellously sympathetic to the singers, as ever, never overwhelming in terms of tempo or dynamics.
Outmoded as it is, this is in many ways a wonderful production, easily my favourite amongst the slumbering dinosaurs of the ROH storage chambers. It tells the story in a way even the youngest or most boneheaded can grasp. Many miles of fabric are used to great effect in the sumptuous costumes, the sets distribute the principals logically across the stage, and gosh, you even get a real gondola on a real(ish) canal. Its great weakness is in taking the words as they come. It doesn't even try to scratch beneath the surface, let alone take advantage of the many appealing structural elements which offer themselves up for interpretation. Retirement must beckon.