Grim, dark Hoffmann

One of the interesting things about Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann is that there is no definitive edition so creative teams have a lot of flexibility in how they cut and combine material.  Director Tobias Kratzer and conductor Carlo Rizzi created a really interesting take for their production at Dutch National Opera in 2018.  It’s a very modern, very dark interpretation that while it keeps Offenbach’s music (though not interpolations like Scintille diamante) and the words are all from (some version of) the libretto the storyline varies a lot from what we are used to while keeping intact the central psychological fact that Hoffmann is incapable of relating to real women.

The student tavern is gone.  Luther and his mates are drinking with Hoffmann in his apartment where he will remain for much of the opera.  The chorus is off stage at this point.  The apartment is one “cell” in one of those currently fashionable doll’s house sets.  The substantive scenes will develop in other cells that come and go around it.  The apartment is a fixture though.  The Muse hardly ever leaves the apartment and certainly isn’t transformed into Nicklausse.  She’s clearly Hoffmann’s rather neglected live in and spends a good deal of time clearing up bottles, tidying the place and getting dressed and undressed.  At the end it’s unclear whether she is finally leaving him or not.



The Olympia act features a very young presentation of Olympia; a theme that will reoccur.  It’s one symptom of Hoffmann’s inability to relate to a fully realised, adult woman.  When Spalanzani orders her to waltz with Hoffmann she pushes him onto the bed and, well you can guess.  But then what did the waltz symbolise to Offenbach’s audience?  Coppélius’ reclaiming of Olympia’s eyes is just the first of several rather gruesome scenes.


Antonia is also very young; a schoolgirl in fact and her ailment seems more mental than physical.  When she realises that the voice of her mother is actually a wind up gramophone record she breaks the record and stabs herself in the throat with a fragment.  The whole scene is dense and frenetic, overwrought even.


Giulietta is a sort of mermaid whore with a sleazy entourage.  Schlémil is a junkie and he dies from an overdose engineered for him by Hoffmann.  Giulietta getting Hoffmann similarly hooked seems to serve as a metaphor for stealing his reflection.  It’s really creepy.


In the final act it really comes together.  There is no Stella.  Her music is sung from outside the apartment by the three sopranos.  Hoffmann tries to get his companions back into the party mood but they aren’t having it and leave in disgust.  The Muse packs up to go.  Hoffmann, finally, seems to see her as a woman but maybe it’s too late.  Does she stay? Does she go?


So there it is.  Hoffmann is always about three unrealistic, somewhat idealistic fantasies of Hoffmann based on a woman he can never have.  Here the fantasies are more indicative of his mental state and are based on different aspects of a fantasy woman who apparently doesn’t even exist; though his apartment is full of images of her.  The one real woman that he can have for the asking is treated abominably by him and probably leaves him.  However weird the act by act descriptions seem the thing actually holds together remarkably well.  It’s more psychologically coherent in fact than any other version I’ve seen.  Tobias Kratzer is clearly a director to watch.


There are some musically and dramatically convincing performances here too.  John Osborne is just right for Hoffmann.  He has the top notes plus some real heft and acting flair.  It’s good stuff.  It’s ages since I’ve seen Erwin Schrott but the Uruguayan baritone is brilliant as the villains.  He’s vocally secure and absolutely demonic.  The man oozes suave evil.  It’s quite a show.  The three fantasy objects are all terrific.  Nina Misayan nails Olympia’s coloratura and acts in an appropriately stilted and naive manner without being unintentionally funny.  Ermonela Jaho conveys great fragility and a certain mad quality as Antonia and Christine Rice is as blowzy as you could wish.  No sophisticated courtesan here but something decidedly down market though with a rich tone that combines beautifully with Irene Roberts’ brighter colours in Belle Nuit.  Roberts, as the Muse, has an awful lot of silent acting to do and it’s a compelling performance.  She also takes her sung numbers effectively.  The rest of the cast is also good with some fine moments from Sunnyboy Dladla in the tenor roles and a really interesting cameo from François Lil as the junkie Schlémil.  As so often when the conductor collaborates with the director in creating the piece the overall effect is much enhanced and one can’t fault the co-ordination of the action or the sound that Carlos Rizzi conjures up from the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the excellent DNO chorus.


This is a really hard production to film.  Doll’s house sets present a whole set of problems and here it’s often the case that there’s a brightly lit apartment right next to something much darker.  That’s a challenge for video director and for the reproduction technologies used.  Misjel Vermeiren does a really good job and the picture on Blu-ray is good enough even when things get difficult.  The sound; stereo and DTS-HD-MA, is standard Blu-ray quality.  The booklet contains a detailed track listing and a short, not very helpful, essay.  It also contains the “standard” synopsis which isn’t much use here.  There are no extras on the disk.  Subtitles are French, English, German, Korean and Japanese.


This is a really good video version of Tales of Hoffmann for anybody willing to go along with Kratzer and Rizzi’s revisionist approach.  I don’t think it matters whether one is familiar with the piece or not.  One can take it on its own terms or get something out of thinking about why they have made some of the changes they have.  Either approach has its rewards.


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