The bitter aftertaste of Les contes d’Hoffmann (ROH, 7 November 2016)

It’s back to Traditionalville at ROH with this revival of the busy 1980 production of Les contes d’Hoffmann (or, as the announcer put it, Dhoffmann). It’s nice to look at, it’s got (sparkly) colours and the people on stage could not be confused with the audience. There are gondolas. Well, if we’re to revive a trad production, gondolas or similar aquatic vehicles will make me happy.

Then there are women. And that’s where things stop being funny haha.

Hoffmann: Vittorio Grigòlo
Four Villains Satan: Thomas Hampson
Olympia: Sofia Fomina
Giulietta: Christine Rice
Antonia: Sonya Yoncheva
Nicklausse: Kate Lindsey
Spalanzani: Christophe Mortagne
Crespel: Eric Halfvarson
Four Servants: Vincent Ordonneau
Spirit of Antonia’s Mother: Catherine Carby
Nathanael: David Junghoon Kim
Hermann: Charles Rice
Schlemil: Yuriy Yurchuk
Luther: Jeremy White
Conductor: Evelino Pidò | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH

Opera fan: Oh, no! I forgot this one had a sad end.

A 19th century opera in which the soprano dies?! What are the odds?

A 19th century opera in which the mezzo gets the drunken broken spiritually elevated tenor? Well, sort of. After she ditches the tophat and breeches. Platonically. Ok, in the spiritual realm. Offenbach was doing his best for 1880, you know. We’re spiritual soulmates if you put a dress on and complete my collection of emotional crutch-babes. Mezzos, aren’t you lucky?

But one takes what one can when it comes to the 1880s or 1980s productions. Two mezzos ain’t bad, especially when they’re neither broken dolls nor dying of self expression.

Is Satan really evil in this opera? Isn’t he kinda helping Hoffmann develop into a real person man/artist by jinxing all his romantic relationships? About half way through I thought to myself, if Satan really wants to get Hoffmann, he should go after Nicklausse; that’ll properly destabilise this Hoff – why isn’t he? Well, perhaps because Nicklausse isn’t an actual person, I hear you say, and Satan/Lindorf can only see the obvious. Though at least one courtesan was definitely trying to cope a feel off Nicklausse at Giulietta’s party (maybe said courtesan was flirting with her spiritual side).

The plot is more than a bit quaint for contemporary sensibilities. Ariadne auf Naxos covers the same territory in a fresher, less sentimental/conventional – and much shorter – way. Plot aside, the team was well chosen and well drilled. The funny stuff was funny, the sad stuff was sad (enough), Christine Rice gave us plump mezzo tone, Kate Linsdey looked reliably dishy in tophat and breeches, Hampson was Satan (he has all these different names, but it’s Satan all right, especially the way he’s dressed in this production) and Grigòlo Werther again but with even more to emote. In the end, it was a bit of a 2016 who’s who at ROH. You come in, you do your thing with world class professionalism, you move on; another day, another lavish production, Brexit or no Brexit.

Late 19th century opera isn’t quite my thing. But I have to know. It’s not like I disliked it, the music was better than average. I just found the parts disjointed and simplistic (getting to know “woman”, one side of the personality at a time, (ha.ha.) – and the sides are: 1) compliant like a doll, 2) horny like a (materialistic) whore (libretto’s implication, not mine) and 3) with incipient personality, just ready to be crushed). Three conventionally stupid stories. The women exist so that Hoffmann can develop as a human being/artist or so Lindorf has someone to take home at the end of the night.

Antonia is the one with a tiny bit of personality but she – of course – dies before anything can be furthered. And even as this is being discussed, Hoffmann still thinks it’s ok to ask her to give up her dreams if he sings of his love for her with lots of emotion. Remember the poet in L’heure espagnole? He made the grandest, most seductive promises but when it came to getting down and dirty he couldn’t do the job. That’s very similar to how Hoffmann is when Stella (presumably the emobodiment of the three requirements in a woman) appears (ie, too drunk to… well).

Arguably the only decent character here is Nicklausse, so mezzos can be happy. Nicklausse gets to be funny and clever (the voice of reason) in that way only the French can. Coming on the heels of that, the ending is a letdown (why the hell does Muse Nicklausse like this simple minded, sexist moron Hoffmann? You’ve suffered so much, Hoffmann! I’ll take care of you for the rest of time. He suffered? He mostly ran around getting pissed whilst scratching the concept of love at the most superficial level. Well, I suffered too, especially when WP ate my posts; where’s my tophat-sporting mezzo muse?)

Kate Lindsey has sung Nicklausse a lot, you can see her on YT. She was, I guess, as good as she can be at this point in her career. Maybe she’s outgrown the ultra nervous acting I associated with her via Tito and Ariadne, maybe it was just what she was asked in those productions and I thought that was her. Here she can do chill.

Nicklausse is quite the watcher who spends a lot of time waiting for Hoffmann to get dramatically shitfaced whilst he (Nick) sits benignly quiet. When it came time to be funny she was funny, though she perhaps pushed it a bit in the aria where Nicklausse takes the piss out of Olympia’s mechanical singing, in a last ditch effort to extract applause. To be fair, the aria came out very well and she did get her applause. I still think her voice is a bit thin or throaty, but the tone isn’t unpleasant. And, as I always say, she’s very realiable. I’ve seen her 4 times now and she never simply coasted. I still wish there was more to it. She’s covering a repertoire where I’m still waiting for someone to wow me.

Yoncheva sang Antonia – again with a lot of professionalism. She sang it sort of like a cross between Mimi and Violetta – goodnatured but doomed and knowing it. This was my first time hearing Yoncheva live and I have to say I am a bit lost as to what the fuss is about. I heard her in Faust on the radio and my reaction was positive. In the flesh – and in a different (perhaps rather thankless) role – she was good, yes.

The technique, the size and the professionalism for the big stage was there but… there is that Slavic thing in her tone (not the metallic bit, the inflection) which seemed too Slavic for French opera. Then the voice itself didn’t grab me. She reminded me a bit of Gheorghiu but more in intention than in tone. Her interaction with Grigòlo was good, though. It wasn’t quite ravishing but better than average. Sort of like we’re pros, we can act, we know each other, we’ve rehearsed this, we know we’re on the ROH main stage so we’ll look like we mean it.

Christine Rice was Giulietta and finally I had a voice I could relish. Last time I saw her as Jenny (the kind hearted hooker) in The Rise and Fall…, and she was my favourite there as well – just nicely rounded, secure, sonorous mezzo tone. Plotwise it’s a throw away role and the take here doesn’t give her anything to sink her teeth in, so she focused on her singing. Perhaps the drama deepened a bit when, knowing what Satan wants from her, she acted slightly ambivalent with Hoffmann, giving a hint that there could be more than blunt materialism to her. Nicely done.

Young Sofia Fomina sang the mechanical singing doll Olympia to much acclaim. This production loves the Olympia story, where we can see Offenbach’s comic genius. This scene should always be shown in masterclasses – how not to sing (legato, what legato; emotion? for humans). Fomina played Olympia for laughs and she sang the scales with accuracy, though perhaps there was a bit of cloud at the very top of her range. Maybe nerves, maybe youth. Anyway, she’s talented and eager, and having come out of the ROH Young Artist ranks we will see more of her development.

I laughed too, because some things are so bad they’re… well, if not good, at least hilarious. But I couldn’t help thinking about what it all means. Hoffmann adds to the hilarity of the mechanical singing doll by falling in love with her. Yes, it’s funny, he’s so naive and self involved, he takes her pre-programmed “yes, yes” as an admission of requitted feelings.

But it’s cringe-worthy to think that he has such low expectations of women as to think that looking/acting like dolls is all they can offer. Sure, you can say it says more about his lack of imagination (for a poet!), lack of empathy and of naivite in general. But he’s a damn poet, he’s supposed to be more observant than the average bar brawling dude. I viscerally hate equating women with dolls. So it’s funny but with an aftertaste; a really bitter one.

Dramatically, Grigòlo in the title role was, like I said, hot on the heels of his Werther earlier in the year. I’ve a funny “relationship” with him. I first hated him in Rigoletto, then I changed my mind for L’elisir d’amore and so I went to see him in Werther. I still like him though he’s pulled an even bigger diva act here than in Werther. Of course, it’s all about Hoffmann and Hoffmann is – as poets usually are in opera – terribly insufferable. It’s like if they feel SO vividly and immensely the world owes them something. Well, not really. The rest of us also have intense feelings.

Also he is quite a Mary Sue. All the women find him irresistible. The coolest doll in town says “yes” to him; the trendiest courtesan wants him; the biggest opera star of his time, who sings Mozart (I wonder which role?) better than anyone sends him love letters; even the mousy girl with big hopes sighs for him. Right. Best of all, the freakin’ Muse of Poetry has nothing better to do than patiently wait to save his arse from his latest bar brawl. As if.

Grigòlo is a good singer and he has the personality to carry this OTT role with a straight face. He also, of course, has to enthusiastically make out with most of the women, which he does. On the other hand, his relationship with Nicklausse came off so chummy as to feel quite curious when in the end Nicklausse turns in to the Muse and gets all I’ve always loved you, Hoffmann. I mean, fair enough, but you want a hint or two leading up to this sort of feeling.

For all the emotive singing, shouting, crying, throwing himself about, making out, even fencing, Thomas Hampson as Lindorf/Satan still outshone him every time his turn came. He sang well and with clear intention but not amazingly yet that didn’t matter as much as his dramatic turn. That’s a singer who can hold the stage without doing much of anything and indeed it was when he had less to do that he was at his best. The whole business with the eyes (Copelius the optician) was funny odd rather than funny haha but the scene with Antonia was powerful. To a lesser extent so was the one where he tells Giulietta to get Hoffmann’s shadow. Briefly put, he can do menacing just from the way he moves or looks; he can also do funny, yes, but not quite on that level (or at least not here).

To sum it up, I personally felt a lack of drama, for all the pizzazz thrown at us. This lack of drama seems to me both inherent to the opera and to this production. Maybe it’s because so much is made in the libretto about its fantastical nature. I don’t know, I’ve only watched it once before and then I was heavily invested in the music, so dramatically most was new to me. It’s a curious opera and I guess it needs revisiting at some point, in a more conceptual production, where hopefully the whole woman business is… done something with. For now I can’t even tell you what I thought about the conducting, as I was so focused on the plot and the stage business. I normally like Pidò and nothing seemed glaring one way or another.

Overheard during the second intermission:

Opera fan 1: How old is he?
Opera fan 2: Who? Grigòlo? I think he’s in his 40s.
Opera fan 1: Yea?
Opera fan 2: Yea. He’s… he’s 44. He was born in ’77.

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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on November 9, 2016, in french opera, live performances, romantic opera, royal opera house and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. 44? Close enough for government work! Also applies to the Act order of this production 🙂

    Like

    • Also applies to the Act order of this production

      haha! very nice. I actually turned around to see who the arithmetics champion was and tried to figure out how he got to that number.

      Like

  2. P.Petibon sang Olympia, might be worth checking out? and if it’s O.Py who did the staging, then definitely a must!

    Like

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