Richard Jones's production of The Tales of Hoffmann for ENO blows the Gothic cobwebs from Offenbach's last, incomplete opera, a drunkard's quest for love in which three female characters are aspects of the elusive perfect woman.
The setting is a slanted room, with bed, piano, basin, mirror and armoire as constants. Giles Cadle's designs change colour, style and proportion with each drop of the curtain, each new object of desire: a spartan set of college rooms (Prologue), a garish mid-century kindergarten (Olympia), an airless fin de siècle consulting room (Antonia), a Postmodern, wipe-clean bordello with a painting of the Rialto (Giulietta).
Small details are enlarged or adapted. Portraits sing, an orchestra of vampires serenades Antonia's delirium, a gorilla lopes around Giulietta's bed. The effect is giddying, hallucinatory, semi-serious, a product of the heavy "Glou, glou, glou" of the wine in Hoffmann's glass. Even the score has changed (ENO uses the Kaye and Keck edition). E T A Hoffmann's Gothic grotesques, archetypes in 1880s Paris, with its theatrical medical lectures and chanteuses épileptiques, are familiar still: quack, pseudo-scientist and pimp, doll, hysteric and whore.
Hoffmann is an opera without a hero. Barry Banks's pickled poet ricochets from fantasy to fantasy, fuelled by booze and self-pity, bright-toned and Italianate. Excepting Christine Rice's ambiguous, watchful Nicklausse, this is not a cast of soft, supple, typically French voices. Clive Bayley's Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr Miracle/ Dapertutto is incisive, every consonant poison-tipped. A mere shadow as Stella, Georgia Jarman's dark, precise soprano extends with ease through Olympia's trance-like coloratura, Antonia's heroic disintegration and Giulietta's hot-breathed barcarolle.
While conductor Antony Walker focuses on Offenbach's silky wash of woodwind and strings, Jones highlights the cruelty in the comedy. Olympia spins as though possessed, her plastic legs swinging in the opposite direction to her neoprene torso. In drag as Cochenille, Simon Butteriss flicks cigarette ash on a tray of ice-creams. Graeme Danby's Crespel has a Freudian beard and, perhaps, a Freudian motive for silencing his consumptive daughter. The soul-stealing in the third act is achieved gruesomely, though this is Offenbach's weakest material and the final chorus curdles in its own sentiment in Tim Hopkins's translation. The stage-craft is tight, the spectacle audacious, but for an ideal Hoffmann, I need to feel the amour in the amour fou.
Composed in 1909, Samuel Coleridge- Taylor's Thelma received its belated world premiere last week, 100 years after the composer's death at the age of 37. Stephen Anthony Brown's meticulous performing edition includes the sensitive orchestration of a movement found only in the piano score. Director Christopher Cowell has tweaked a libretto thought to be Taylor's own, but more drastic intervention is needed. A torrid mix of Nordic folklore and Christian moralising, in which the hero must swim to the bottom of the sea to win his bride, Thelma has music of great suavity, with shades of Dvorák's The Spectre's Bride.
In fake fur and car blankets, Surrey Opera's chorus sang lustily, dutifully waving their arms in the underwater scene. Joanna Weeks (Thelma), Hakan Vramsmo (Carl) and Alberto Sousa (Eric) gave polished performances. Rhonda Browne's Gudrun had pathos, while Oliver Hunt's leering snuff-pusher Djaevelen brought a hint of panto to the denouement. Under Jonathan Butcher, the orchestra achieved a robust glow. Considering 1909 was the year that Strauss's Elektra and Schoenberg's Erwartung were created, Taylor was already outdated. Croydon's most famous musical son is in the spotlight this year. But as to magic Nordic snuff, just say no.
The Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth was the subject of London Sinfonietta's latest In Portrait concert. So profuse are the quotations and allusions in her music that it is almost as if she doesn't want to be heard. Her soundworld is that of a recently emptied room, unlike her British muse, counter-tenor Andrew Watts, whose voice is 100 per cent present, heart on sleeve, tongue in cheek.
Written for Watts, Five Daily Miniatures sets Gertrude Stein's mystic bag-lady aphorisms to dyspeptic glissandi and thundercloud percussion. Neuwirth's concerto, miramondo multiplo, is more slippery, neo-neoclassical in its prim passages for piccolo trumpet (Alistair Mackie), with a blowsy burst of "Send in the Clowns" and a smudge of Handel. In Hommage à Klaus Nomi there is little but quotation and two silent segments of film. Neuwirth's disco numbers sound like deodorised Michael Nyman, her setting of "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead!" like sherbert. It was fabulous. It was bizarre. But once is enough.
'Tales of Hoffmann' (0871 911 0200) to 10 Mar
Claudia Pritchard discovers whether an all-male Patience is a virtue
Robin Ticciati conducts Lars Vogt and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, plus Brahms and Berlioz, at Queen's Hall, Edinburgh (Thu), City Halls, Glasgow (Fri). Still controversial 20 years on, John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer returns to ENO at the London Coliseum (from Sat).