Les Contes d'Hoffmann - Nationaltheater Munich, 12 November 2011
For all its garish wallpaper, vintage frocks and toy animals, this new production is not a lot of fun. You can forget about the gondolas for a start.
Richard Jones takes a decidedly sober view of what might make someone hit the bottle. Jones's own youth informs much of his work, so perhaps it's not surprising he shows Hoffmann's creative identity to be moulded by past experiences.
Hoffmann is not the usual garrulous taproom raconteur, but a depressive alcoholic at a artistic standstill. Rolando Villazon, playing against type, tones down remarkably effectively - the clown behind the mask, and not just the clown. (And yes, it was Just Acting - he reverted to the usual japes at the curtain call.) He makes a tough act for Barry Banks to follow when the show comes to ENO next spring.
Jones bravely tries to shape the ragbag work as an autobiographical journey. Nicklausse is a short-trousered version of Hoffmann himself - an inner child or maybe a past self accompanying Hoffmann's journey through his memories. Olympia is a Dusty Springfield-like toy at a '60s childhood party, Antonia is a sort of hippy Kate Bush '70s type, and Giulietta a tattooed ringer for Amy Winehouse. All the sets have the same layout - expressionistically angled walls with a bed in the corner, a desk and a cavernous bureau - as if Hoffmann is repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and reaching for the drink after each one.
Jones is at his most inspired in the Olympia act, which is filled with with chorus members dressed like six year olds instead of the usual ball guests. The Antonia act feels underdeveloped by comparison - partly perhaps because there's not much for Hoffmann himself to do. For Giulietta, Jones brings out a giant shaving mirror, into which her clients' faces are pressed to rather unconvincingly remove their souls. I suspect anyone who didn't know the opera would wonder what the hell was going on here. It simply doesn't work with the music, and it's not helped by a version/edit that does away with a large chunk of the act. We get what feels like hours of repetitive soul-removal (each is tidied away in its own jam jar), then the climactic deaths are over in a jiffy.
Dramatically, Rolando Villazon held the whole thing together brilliantly. Vocally, this was his most testing role since his recent operation, and it showed. Most of the time his tone was pinched and nasal - perhaps the only way he could project sustainably without strain. Of course this sort of vocal production limits the richness of tone and variety of colours, and the result was dry and somewhat monotonous. A few notes were gloriously, intriguingly, open and freely-produced, an indication I hope that his problems are not permanent.
Diana Damrau had a far more difficult task, taking on all three heroines, and she excelled from start to finish. A few years ago you might have expected Olympia to be her strongest role, but since the recent birth of her first child, her voice has grown and darkened. She could still throw off those high notes with ease, but her delicate, lyrical Antonia was perhaps even more impressive.
I can't say anyone else made much of an impression. Munich stalwart Kevin Conners sang strongly in the servant roles, and Angela Brower was a bright and enthusiastic Nicklausse, but John Relyea's villains were as faded and anonymous as the production concept would imply.
Constantinos Carydis conducted with great sensitivity to the singers, but little sense of structure or style - despite the fact that this performance was mid-run, it felt like a nervous dress rehearsal in orchestral terms.