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.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue is a setting of a libretto by the symbolist poet and playwright Maeterlinck. It’s roughly contemporary with both Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Strauss’ Salome. It shows. It really is a product of a particular fin de siècle world view. Like Debussy’s piece, Ariane is loosely based on a folk tale. In this case it’s the gory story of Duke Bluebeard and his six wives but here it’s curiously etiolated. It’s as if Maeterlinck is reacting to the ultra-realism of, say, Zola, by retreating into a strange inner world. It’s not even the troubled inner world of Freud or Jung either. It’s colourless (and we’ll come back to that). All this is reinforced by Maeterlinck’s style of telling rather than showing. Much of what “action” there is takes place off stage and is narrated by the on stage characters. Both words and music are used to fill in the gaps.
Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges is a really peculiar work. It’s like an adult fairy tale crossed with a Dario Fo farce. A hypochondriac prince can only be cured by laughter. Conventional attempts fail but he is highly amused by the evil sorceress Fata Morgana. She’s offended and curses him to seek out the three oranges which are guarded by a giant ladle wielding cook. She is overcome by a magic ribbon only for the prince and his sidekick Truffaldino to get stuck in the desert with the oranges, by now grown huge, but without water. Trouffaldino taps two of the oranges for a drink and out pop two princesses who promptly die of thirst. The third princess is rescued from the same fate by the intervention of the chorus and the Ten Eccentrics who have been commenting on the action throughout. While the prince is off getting help, the princess is turned into a giant rat and Fata Morgana’s sidekick substituted for her. But back at the palace the good magician turns the rat back into the princess, the baddies are unmasked and the goodies live happily ever after. And all this takes less than two hours. There are Russian and French versions of the libretto. This production uses the French.
Laurent Pelly’s 2005 production for De Nederlandse Opera with sets by Chantal Thomas is a wonderful piece of direction supported by really slick stagecraft. The basic theme is of playing cards as we are in the realm of the King of Clubs. There are playing card moving flats creating the necessary farce like entries and exits, playing card dancers in the attempts to amuse the prince, a high level game of cards between the magician Tchelio and Fata Morgana. Giant card houses collapse to signify chaos at the end of act two and so on. It all moves at a breakneck pace with set changes on the fly and is very engaging.
Pelly is backed up by a strong cast of singing actors. The vocal lines are mostly not very interesting but the acting demands on the principals are up there for an opera production. This cast pulls it off really well. The full cast is listed below and it’s a bit invidious to single out individual efforts as this is very much an ensemble performance. That said, I would single out for special praise the acting of Serghei Khomov as Trouffaldino and Anna Shafajinskaya as Fata Morgana. Singing honours go to the prince and princess; Martial Defontaine and Sandrine Piau, who get one of the few lyrical bits to sing in Act 3.
Most of the musical interest in this piece is in the orchestra. Here we have the Rotterdam Philharmonic with Stéphane Denève. It’s a brisk and lively idiomatic reading. At times the orchestra tends to overwhelm the singers but I think that’s the score rather than the conducting. I’m mildly amused that one theme, a march, recurs throughout the piece and it appears to be what John Williams borrowed for the March of the Imperial Stormtroopers!
Direction for TV and video is by Misjel Vermeiren and it’s very good indeed. There’s a lot going on on stage, on the approaches to the stage and even in the pit. Vermeiren doesn’t miss anything and gives us a very good idea of the stagecraft and what the audience in the theatre saw. First rate! There’s a cast gallery, a useful synopsis some interviews as bonus material. On DVD the sound options are DTS 5.1 and LPCM stereo. The surround track is clear with decent spatial awareness. The picture is 16:9 anamorphic and really pretty good helped by the fact that, although quite short, the work is spread over two discs. There are English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch subtitles. This performance is also available on Blu-ray disc and based on previous Opus Arte DVD/Blu-ray productions I’d go that way if I was buying.
All in all this is a very satisfying and entertaining package.