John Schlesinger’s production of Les Contes D’Hoffmann has achieved 173 performances at the Royal Opera House alone, even before counting this final revival by Daniel Dooner. The story of disenfranchised poet Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigòlo) and his reluctance to entertain the masses with three final stories of lost love and heartbreak is surrounded in death and despair – composer Jacques Offenbach died four months before its opening, clutching the finished manuscript in his hand, and neither original director Schlesinger nor costume designer Maria Björnson are alive today to see their version’s swansong. 181 performances of this production in total; quite the achievement to cap off a set of highly successful careers.
Dooner’s eighth revival show, 36 years on from its premiere, is understandably a grandiose affair, just as Offenbach and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré initially envisaged it to be. Three acts, three stories, three hours (plus intervals); everything about the show is reflective of the Romantic period, everything is done to excess. Björnson’s costumes are intricate and varied, each cast member facing at least three changes into ball gowns and tails. William Dudley, a seasoned hand at the Royal Opera House, injects his intimate knowledge of the space to produce a set that is both in keeping with the location and the story, yet still manages to ingeniously evoke intimacy despite its grandiose scale. There will always be an issue with set changes in a production of this magnitude and Dooner’s revival is no exception, transporting its audience back to a traditional form of opera where intervals intersperse acts and curtain calls are required to switch from one complex set to another, as well as an opportunity to praise the lead singers of each piece. Despite its complexity, Dooner’s team need to increase their efficiency so as not to lost momentum in the story.
Right from the outset, the tone of Les Contes d’Hoffmann is established – a spirited, bittersweet tale of regret and despair. From the moment Hoffmann (Grigòlo) stumbles down the stairs of the inn, it is obvious he is a broken man, ravaged by a life of unrequited desire that transforms this great poet into a shell of his former self. Initially vacant and despondent, Grigòlo narrates and participates in each tale with vigour and dedication. Hoffmann is often the wrongly blamed villain, the anti-hero in each story and Grigòlo charts his demise from naïve youth to bitter old man effectively in each act. The once brash artist is brought viciously into touch by three superior female performances. Vocally each of the three divas are distinct, but all have a commonality in exerting effortless mastery of their craft.
The lesson in female dominance begins with mechanical doll Olympia (Sofia Fomina), whom Hofmann mistakes for real beauty and falls unreservedly for. Fomina’s presence here is robotic and technical, exactly in keeping with her character’s requirements. Stiff movement and a precise vocal add emotion and panache to this intentionally stilted story, a vocal masterclass in diaphragmatic control and effortless pitching. By contrast courtesan Giulietta (Christine Rice) is lustful and coy, her vocal a rich, purple tone that plays heavily on vibrato and stirs the passions within Hoffmann. Offenbach interweaves complex polyphony into their duet, culminating in a sumptuous, full-bodied texture. Final damsel Antonia (Sonya Yoncheva) provides the final nail in Hoffmann’s coffin, a passionate soprano that combines the technical prowess of Fomina with the texture of Rice. Her final vocal before her demise perfectly sums up the complex Romanticism that Offenbach weaves through his score – full of passion to pursue her talents despite her sick, frail physicality.
Les Contes d’Hoffmann – a set of stories, fables that rationalise and chart a once great wordsmith’s fall from grace, watched over by faithful servant Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey) with the vain hope of rekindling such talent. Offenbach’s opera frames a man’s life by the women that influence him, a superior feminine quality that Dooner and Schlesinger’s productions mimic in their realisations.
Les Contes D’Hoffmann is playing at the Royal Opera House until 3 December. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore