Last night saw the third performance in the current run of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Canadian Opera Company.
It’s a peculiar work. It was Offenbach’s first and only foray into grand opera and he didn’t live to complete it. This leaves all sorts of performance issues regarding orchestration, sequence of the acts and spoken dialogue vs accompanied recitatives among others. The COC version uses the conventional act order; Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and recitatives with orchestral accompaniment which makes for a long night but is probably the best fit with director Lee Blakeley’s take on the piece, previously seen at Vlaamse Opera in 2000.
The story concerns the drunk poet Hoffmann and his real and imaginary loves. Each of his imaginary loves represents a different aspect of his “real” love, the singer Stella. Each avatar of Stella plus her “real” self have a corresponding villain or nemesis. The individual scenes are interesting but the whole thing feels a bit cobbled together which presents opportunities and challenges for a director. The material is such that the story could easily be played for laughs or the director can seek a deeper meaning. The latter is obviously more interesting but faces the problem that the music doesn’t really help with going that route. It has its deeper moments but then just when profundity might perhaps be around the corner it either becomes grotesque or breaks out into a drinking song again! In this production Blakeley definitely veers to the serious end of the possible interpretations. Each of the Hoffman’s loves represents a different aspect of what a woman can’t be in 19th century society while showing that it’s permissible for a man, especially an “artist” to be an intolerable prick.
So, in Act 1 Olympia, conventionally an automaton that Hoffmann takes for real, is here more like Frankenstein’s monster (in an obvious hat tip to Mary Shelley and the impossibility of life with a mad poet). It’s a very funny act but has an underlying message about the contradiction (in 19th century bourgeois terms) of being fully feminine and fully human. In Act 2, Antonia is a singer who has a hereditary disease. If she continues to perform she will die as her mother did before her. No career for you lass, back to the kitchen. Giulietta represents the only career actually open to a woman; tart. She’s a courtesan of course because this is French opera and we don’t do cheap whores. Finally Hoffmann is reclaimed for art by his Muse and the “real” woman Stella leaves with the villain Lindorf. Except here she reappears in Hoffmann’s squalid attic. Is Blakeney telling us that in the final analysis women will put up with anything or is Stella just another figment of Hoffmann’s imagination? It’s an interesting production concept and is probably about as dark as the music will take.
The sets are interesting. The prologue and epilogue are played out in a “garret” set as a crazy angled box on the stage. Characters come and go by various routes and appear from unexpected angles. The three acts get giant furniture for sets that provide a variety of platforms and vantage points. Moving flats are used to enclose or open up the space. I’m not sure how good an idea some of this was because while it was visually effective it definitely changed the acoustics in my part of the house (Orchestra Ring). For once the normally exemplary Four Seasons Centre acoustic wasn’t quite there and at times the chorus in particular sounded muffled. Costumes are mostly fairly conventional late 19th century generic but quite effective. The lighting is mostly dark to very dark ambient with spots. Anyone not in the first few rows would be well advised to take opera glasses and even then I had trouble adjusting between the stage and the surtitles. It was a night of eyestrain.
And so to the performances. It was pretty good really. Russell Thomas sang excellently as Hoffmann. He is a proper grand opera tenor with a bright tone, lots of volume and ringing top notes. It’s a long sing but he was still going strong at the end. Unfortunately he doesn’t really characterise Hoffmann who remains rather bland and anonymous. John Relyea sang the villains very stylishly and with a suitably villainous dark tone. I thought he struck a nice balance in the acting department. He managed to avoid the temptation to indulge in excessive moustache twirling and was appropriately restrained without being wooden. Andriana Chuchman aced the difficult coloratura as Olympia while managing the fairly high physical demands of the acting. It was a bit slap stick but then I don’t think that can really be avoided in that act. Erin Wall was a sympathetic Antonia though Act 2 was the one point where I thought things went a bit awry musically. Somehow the trio between Hoffmann, Antonia and the ghost of Antonia’s mother (Ileana Montalbetti) didn’t work , at least from where I was sitting. I think it may have been the position of the singers on the stage producing an odd acoustic but the overall effect was a sort of aural mush. Keri Alkema was fine as Giulietta. Her voice is richer toned than the others and it provided a pleasant contrast. Lauren Segal was dramatically and vocally very effective as Nicklausse and the Muse. I’m so used to seeing her name in cast lists that I didn’t realise until after the fact that this must be her biggest COC role to date by some margin. Here she managed very well to project Nicklausse as perhaps less Hoffmann’s guardian than his real nemesis. Among the supporting roles I would draw out the very funny Steven Cole who managed some impressive physical acting as Frantz and Cochenille, Chris Enns as Nathanael who showed how much his voice has developed in the last twelve months producing a very solid sound (baritenor in the making here?) and Ambur Braid who had to do more walking about looking gorgeous than singing but did both very well.
Johannes Debus conducts. He’s been criticised for not sounding French enough in this piece and there was a certain solidity to the orchestral playing but to me that didn’t seem out of place given Blakeley’s direction. The chorus didn’t have its best night ever, sometimes sounding muffled, but this may have been a function of the set acoustics. Bottom line, it’s a good show. I think the opera itself is a bit of an incoherent mess but the COC team have done a good job of creating a show out of it that is worth seeing, if one that onewould probably have to see more than once to fully grasp. If I were to go again I’d either try to sit closer to the stage or much higher up. I strongly suspect that either would alleviate the apparent acoustical problems we seemed to be having.
There are six more performances between now and May 14.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper 2012