Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen

The fact that Offenbach died before completing – or even properly organizing – The Tales of Hoffmann has left opera companies great flexibility in determining how to stage the opera – which music or dialogues to include and in what order.  Anything coherent could work in theory.  A little over a year ago I sat through a mess of a production at the Volksoper, but have rectified this tonight by attending the Salzburg Landestheater‘s new production.

The staging itself was neither here nor there – not elaborate, not in any particular style, but with many props so it was a staging.  It did not help, but it also did not interfere with what was otherwise a finely structured performance overall.  The concept relied on Hoffmann and his muse stepping out of the stories they had drafted themselves into as participants in order to also be external observers (the author and his muse, after all).  Hoffmann’s loves always went horribly wrong, as he became depressed while he wrote and in this setting his muse had to put an end to each story and get him to move on.  In the epilogue, Hoffmann with the help of his muse, came to the conclusion that he did not himself need love because he had his art.  The muse conjured up all of Hoffmann’s characters for a triumphant final chorus.

What is most interesting about this ending is that it was the same ending the Volksoper used in its production last year.  But in the Volksoper’s version it made no sense, essentially because the Volksoper’s version had no logical concept for the performing version they used which seemingly contained every sketch Offenbach ever jotted down with no editing whatsoever.  The Landestheater’s well-thought-through performing version could handle this ending.  This meant also deleting the role of Stella – she cannot appear because that would be just another love lost for Hoffmann, whereas here instead of getting defeated drunk under the table, Hoffmann emerges with his muse in triumph.

That the cast and orchestra rose to the challenge musically certainly increased the triumph.  Franz Supper as Hoffmann drove the opera forward with nuance, his voice remaining firm throughout, the glue to hold these stories together.  George Humphreys, performing all four villains, kept a menacing tone and a sense of drama.  Tamara Gura, as Hoffmann’s muse, acted well but did not always have a big enough voice.  Of the three female loves, Tamara Ivaniš as the doll Olympia gave the strongest performance, with an appropriately delicate voice that nevertheless projected through the hall.  Anne-Fleur Werner as the singer Antonia in the third act (they used the traditional order, albeit probably not the order Offenbach wanted, putting Antonia as the third of the three) also performed her role with tragedy and love.  In the middle, Angela Davis as Giulietta was merely adequate.

The Mozarteum Orchestra exceeded itself in the pit tonight.  Adrian Kelly had them in full sound, but always properly proportioned to never overwhelm the singers, but with enough volume and shape to almost become a character of its own (it never overstepped its role as a pit orchestra, but its gorgeous playing was certainly appreciated and noted by the even more rousing applause it received at the end).  Kelly’s pacing was perfect, allowing this performance to keep moving forward, even if we sometimes may have wished to get lost in the lush playing and thrilling Offenbachian tunes.

The director was a young German, Alexandra Liedke.  What is unclear to me is whether she made the decision about which performing version to construct, or whether someone on the musical side took that decision and she just staged it (given that she is a German opera director, my inclination is that the good decision was more likely taken by someone else – German directors are so awful that they don’t get the benefit of any doubt).  As I said, the staging itself was neither good nor bad.  If she took the decision of how to put together this version, then good on her (and how atypical of a German director).  If she just staged a version someone else had assembled, then I suppose it could have been worse – but certainly the staging allowed an intelligently-constructed performing version of this opera to bloom.  Score one for the muse.

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