Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a long and convoluted work which usually comes over as an implausible amalgam of Faust and Coppelia.
Richard Jones’s sparkling new production makes of it something witty, macabre, and psychologically so suggestive that it has at times the dark resonance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. This is achieved thanks to a combination of elements which is currently all too rare: brilliant stagecraft, a conductor who knows how to extract high-definition performances, and a cast of versatile singer-actors led by an incomparable trio in the central roles.
Tenor Barry Banks is the poet whose amorous dreams we are invited to share, mezzo Christine Rice is his confidant Nicklausse (here conceived as the double of his schoolboy self), while the American soprano Georgia Jarman incarnates the singer, the doll, and the prostitute who are the elusive creatures of the poet’s fevered imagination; Jones and his designer Giles Cadle have hit on a framing concept which suggests that all three are literally pipe-dreams inspired by the poet’s hopeless love for his diva. Indeed, the entire show is a succession of conjuring tricks which pass so smoothly and swiftly that at times you hardly register them, the first being when the poet’s reverie is broken by a tavern-full of floppy-haired young carousers suddenly emerging from the woodwork. Each scene has the hyper-reality of a manga comic; the cleverly-choreographed movement has a stylised exaggeration which chimes perfectly with the tongue-in-cheek gaiety of Offenbach’s bewitching music.
And as Jarman delivers the aria which everyone knows – where Spalanzani’s doll bursts into coloratura song – her preternaturally agile voice and limbs seem to morph in a way which is at once deliciously comic and technically astonishing; you could sense the first-night audience holding its breath in wonder. To see her transformation into the dying Antonia in the next act, for which she colours her timbre in a quintessentially Parisian manner, and then into the louche Giulietta, is to realise what a chameleon talent she has. Banks’s sweetly penetrating sound expresses both comedy and pathos, while Christine Rice’s charismatic Muse effortlessly commands the stage. Meanwhile bass Clive Bailey works his own spell first as Coppelius, then as the quack doctor Miracle, then as a Boris Karloff-like Dapertutto; Simon Butteriss’s incarnations are just as Protean. An unforgettable evening.