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.
It doesn't take long for Rolando Villazón to prove he's not off whatever he's usually on in this Bavarian State Opera video. It's an introduction to Richard Jones's new production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann (the one that's coming to ENO next spring), which opens in Munich tomorrow night.
The title role is the most demanding thing Rolando has done since his recent operation - but even more impressive is Diana Damrau's assumption of all three lady parts.
Production photos by Wilfred Hösl for Bavarian State Opera below.
Les Contes d'Hoffman - Royal Opera House, 1 December 2008
Sometimes productions improve as they progress. And sometimes they don't. This was only the third night in the current run of Les Contes d'Hoffmann, and already a routine, lacklustre feel has crept in. Not from Rolando Villazón, I hasten to add, who gave it 100%, and managed to sound more relaxed than he had on opening night.
But when the chorus drifted almost irretrievably apart from the orchestra for the third time in the first half hour, I had to gaze down and check whether Pappano had fainted or something. It would be understandable (if not excusable) from some inexperienced visiting conductor. But when the music director of Covent Garden can't hold his own players together where the only real challenge is a brisk tempo, you have to wonder what's going on.
It was a shabby start that set the tone for the rest of the evening. Despite Pappano flinging himself around like a sock monkey on an electric fence, he couldn't whip the music up to the necessary froth.
Rolando Villazón and Graham Clark were again the only consistently satisfying singers, though Kristine Jepson's Nicklausse was improved, her presence more authoratative.
Gidon Saks again produced a wonderfully sinister and sonorous Dr Miracle for the Antonia act - it's unfortunate the rest of his performance didn't measure up to this standard. This is the only act which really works on a dramatic level in this production anyway, the only time I felt drawn in. Recent studies have shown that Offenbach meant it to come before the Giulietta act. But here, its darkness and sobriety help it sit more neatly the other way round.
There was a new Olympia this time - Vassiliki Karayanni - with a lovely musical line, firm trills and effortless top notes. The odd note slipped off-target, but hers still proved the most popular performance of the night with the audience.
A disturbing observation - although the stalls and amphitheatre were near-full, there were an embarrassing number of (expensive) empty seats in the levels in-between. Not something you'd expect when Rolando Villazón is on offer in a crowd-pleasing show. A sign of credit-crunching things to come?
Below is the first of a series of YouTube videos called The Real Tales of Hoffmann which document the recent reconstruction of Offenbach's original score (or at least, a closer version of it than the time-honoured one used in the ROH's production):
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 Villazónand 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.
Kristine Jepson provided solid and generous support as Nicklausse but was often a little too far backgrounded.
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.
Barely a week into the new season at Covent Garden, and already we're being asked to whip out our Amexes again, this time for November to March productions. Booking opens this week for those who've paid for the privilege, and next month for the common herd.
Rolando Villazón fights through miles of curtain fabric to reprise his Covent Garden debut role in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Antonio Pappano conducts the elaborate John Schlesinger production, inching ever closer to its sell-by date. Ekaterina Lekhina (Olympia) is a new name to me, but Gidon Saks, Kristine Jepson and Christine Rice promise sturdy support (photo: Clive Barda).
Rolando also submits to a live interview on 10 November. Space is limited, so early booking advised.
The other star vehicle of the season is a new Tim Albery production of Der fliegende Holländer with (cancelitis permitting) Bryn Terfel in the title role. Anja Kampe makes an overdue ROH debut as Senta. Tickets will be restricted to two per customer for this one.
Britten's The Beggar's Opera pops up in the Linbury Studio. The new production by Justin Way (not by conductor Richard Hickox as the website currently claims - there are limits to his talents) is likely to be popular, so again, early booking advised. The excellent and underused Tom Randle is Macheath.
The brilliant Willy Decker production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt that I caught in Vienna finally makes its way to London. Unfortunately Klaus Florian Vogt and Angela Denoke aren't coming with it, but Stephen Gould and Nadja Michael should be a more than passable substitute. And there's the bonus of Gerald Finley in the smaller role of Frank.
David McVicar's t1ts'n'todgersRigoletto returns with indecent haste. Francesco Meli, Leo Nucci, Ekaterina Siurina and Kurt Rydl are amongst the few cast members who get to keep their clothes on.
Elektra isn't illuminated by Charles Edwards's jumbled production, but with Mark Elder in the pit and a cast that includes Susan Bullock, Anne Schwanewilms, Jane Henschel and Johan Reuter it should at least push some musical buttons.
Even I can't get excited about yet another Turandot revival, but include it for the sake of completeness.
On the ballet side, I have to recommend the triple bill The Seven Deadly Sins / Carmen / DGV: Danse à grande vitesse, especially for the first of these and its wonderful music. Chanteuse Martha Wainwright returns to sing Weill's evocative music, and Zenaida Yanowsky is her dancing doppelganger (photo: John Ross).