Telling Tales


(c) Susan Brodie

Rolling in his grave?





When did it become de rigueur to stage the fanciful and flamboyant Les Contes d'Hoffmann in a black box, like the three versions I've seen in the past year in New York, Paris, and Frankfurt? It's bad enough to have such a colorful tale rendered noir, but Oper Frankfurt's new production, directed by Dale Duesing, eliminated not only light and color (other than Arno Bremers's jewel-tone modern costumes and the back-lighting on the unit set, a bar) but at least a third of the music and several characters. Those who survived the downsizing spent the evening perched on bar stools, nursing cocktails, periodically snickering at Hoffmann's alcoholic delusions and waiting for their scenes, which were played downstage. The score was trimmed to just under three hours–and Roland Böer's tempi were far from sprightly. So much of the music, narration, and even minor characters were cut that the story, which already demands suspension of disbelief, made even less sense than usual.


Granted the score is problematic: Offenbach died four months before the 1881 premiere, and the first production eliminated the Giulietta act entirely. Most productions today use a combination of editions, incorporating into the traditional 1904 edition music from a controversial 1970's edition in which the Muse/Niklausse becomes a major player, the catalyst for Hoffmann's creativity. Frankfurt's production relies on the newer score but seems to have dropped much of the restored music, including the pants role's three major arias, which demoted Niklausse to mere drinking buddy. The non-speaking but pivotal role of Stella, Hoffmann's feminine ideal, was gone altogether, eliminating the keystone of the dramatic arc. Strophic arias were shortened–amputated–to a single verse. The prologue and epilogue were trimmed by half, and the Giulietta act was severely truncated. The result was a hatchet job, more Highlights from Hoffmann, robbed of flavor, structure, and sense. It was all very baffling and frustrating.


The performers really did their best, given what they had to work with. Alfred Kim, currently singing Manrico at the Met, was a hyperactive but not terribly persuasive Hoffmann (diction was a problem). Giorgio Surian as the Four Villains seemed more interested in getting back to his drink. Peter Marsh as the Four Servants had almost nothing to do, being granted only a single verse for his lone aria.


Better news came from the women. While the fine mezzo Jenny Carlstedt was sadly underutilized as the Muse/Niklausse, she sang an appealing "Une Poupée aux yeux d'émail" and had excellent presence. Brenda Rae as Olympia gamely executed choreography inspired by Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" during her showpiece arias. Not wanting to review an acquaintance's performance I'll simply note the ecstatic ovation she received. Elza van den Heever sang the first Antonia I have ever cared about. All too often a vapid lyric showpiece, this time the role was infused with poignancy from the first notes. Her voice is sumptuous, freely produced, and beautiful, and I can't wait to hear her again (her season schedule includes Elsa, Leonora, The Composer, and Fiordiligi!).


It's hard to judge Claudia Mahnke's Giulietta fairly because by this point I was struggling to stay awake, so perhaps I shouldn't complain that most of the cuts came in the last act. Barcarole, "Scintille Diamant", the sextet, a bit with the mirror, and time for adieu. That's it?? Possibly the most exciting moment in the act came at the very end, when Schlemil (Florian Plock), shot by Hoffmann, tumbled head first halfway down a flight of stairs and lay supine as the stairs disappeared slowly into the ceiling. So much was cut from this act it might just as well have been eliminated altogether–a decision not without precedent. There is a point at which stripping down to essentials becomes reductio ad absurdum. 


After seeing half a dozen operas at Oper Frankfurt I've been mostly very impressed with production values, even if I didn't care for a particular regie. This one was, unfortunately, in a class of its own.