Laurent Pelly’s 2013 production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Liceu is one of those productions that’s a bit hard to take in at first go. Part of it is the performing edition used (Michael Kay and Jean-Christophe Keck) which seems to have added a lot of dialogue compared to any version I’ve seen before and includes Hoffmann killing Giulietta in Act 3. This produces a constant sense of “where they heck are we in the piece”. It doesn’t help that the DVD package contains no explanatory material at all. There are no interviews on the disks and the documentation is sub-basic.
But, as you would expect from Pelly it’s well crafted. He makes very clever use of sometimes showing us the stage apparatus and sometimes keeping it hidden, to heighten the sense that what’s happening isn’t literally happening. For example in the Olympia act, the doll is on a swinging gantry manipulated by a stage crew. Sometimes the lighting makes her appear to be floating free, at others we see gantry and crew. In effect there are two views; ‘reality’ and what Hoffmann sees through Coppélius’ glasses.
Stage effects aside it’s a rather dour affair visually with lots of grey. The Antonia act has the look and feel of a particularly Grim Ibsen play, though there are some neat projections for the mother, and Luther’s bar is pretty grim too. It only really lightens up a little bit in Giulietta’s rather elegant salon. Even that is pretty restrained by Venetian tart standards. Add to this that the villains are played by Laurent Naouri who, unsurprisingly, comes off more as “weird” than “menacing” and with Naouri that means really weird! It’s hard to encapsulate the overall effect in a few words. It’s certainly the polar opposite of a “spectacle”.
So to the performances, which I think all pretty well support Pelly’s concept. Naouri may be weird but he’s a fine and idiomatic singer in this kind of material. he doesn’t have the heft of, say, Bryn Terfel, but he is very stylish. Kathleen Kim sings Olympia and that really is about all that needs to be said. She is still one of the finest coloratura sopranos around and this is a signature role. Nathalie Dessay’s Antonia is subtly characterised and, of course, very French. There’s not much opportunity hre for trademark dessay fireworks but she’s very solid. Tatiana Pavlovskaya is a rich, genuine mezzo, Giullietta who makes the most of the small role. Michèle Losier is a sweet toned, perhaps too sweet toned, Nicklausse. A bit more masculinity needed perhaps but she’s great in her short parts as the Muse. Michael Spyres’ Hoffmann is athletic and idiomatic but maybe a little light. On the other hand is this very understated production that might not be a bad thing. Stéphane Denève conducts and can crank up the emotion when he needs to. So really, musically it’s pretty strong.
Picture and sound (Dolby 5.1) are pretty decent, if not exceptional in any way, and Louise Narboni’s video direction is pleasantly unobtrusive. As previously mentioned it’s a very “bare bones” package. The subtitle options are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and, of course, Catalan.