Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Royal Opera House, London<br></br>A Grand Night Out, Grand Theatre, Leeds

The search for the ideal woman - it feels like the beginning of an affair
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The Independent Culture

Whatever the discipline, watching winners receive their dues makes me cry. Sally Field's Oscar speech? A killer. Torvill and Dean's gold medal? Same again. Emotion is infectious. But the last thing I expected from the seventh revival of the late John Schlesinger's 1980 Covent Garden production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann was an Academy Award-sized gulp of salty sentiment at the curtain call. Then again, this was a true Hollywood moment. It's not every day that a star is born.

With a brilliant baritonal core that recalls the young Domingo and well-nurtured, easy top notes, Ronaldo Villazón - whose Royal Opera House debut this was - is going to be a very big name. A singer of demonstrable musical intelligence, he's a strikingly fluent actor too. Who knows what transpired between his unremarkable Glyndebourne debut in La Bohème and the first night of Hoffmann but this an artist transformed.

Perhaps it's just a question of finding the right role? For all Puccini's skill, Rodolfo is a cypher compared to Offenbach's charismatic drunk. And for a work that spins by in an apparent whirl of decadence, spectacle and sensuality, the narrative of Hoffmann is surprisingly sober. Though Hoffmann's ideal woman must combine the qualities of "artiste, jeune fille, et courtisane", Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia - played here by Ekaterina Siurina, Jennifer Larmore, and Elena Kelessidi - all fail him: the first because she is nothing but a brilliantly-constructed doll, the second because she's a whore, and the third because she dies. Oh dear. At one level, therefore, Les Contes d'Hoffmann can be read as misogynistic. But its hero's foibles are equally apparent, and Olympia's lack of authenticity is a potent symbol for a technically fluent writer - or composer - who fears a lack of soul in his own art. Each of these women can be interpreted as projections of Hoffmann's faults, feared or real, and in every case our besotted sot is outsmarted by a stronger man: the Lindorf/Coppélius/ Dappertutto/Miracle figure (Willard White). Only the Muse of Poetry (Ruxandra Donose) - disguised as Hoffmann's male companion, Nikolaus - remains constant, and this platonic relationship is surely the best medicine for an alcoholic author enfeebled by syphilis.

The Covent Garden formula of zesting up a classic with young talent is pushed to the limit here, but Villazón's subtlety balances the camp excesses of designer William Dudley's sets. I wonder whether revival director Richard Gregson spent so much time with him that he overlooked the rest? Larmore looks more hungry than sexually voracious, while White is oddly diffident. Though much of the orchestral playing is delicious, conductor Richard Hickox is too stolid a stylist for Offenbach's delicate, witty, sexy score. Vocally too, there is little to get excited about beyond Siurina's superb coloratura and Villazón. And the fabulous Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Andrès/ Cochenille/Pittichinacio/ Frantz) should have been paid double for listening to his native tongue being mauled by the variously Russian, Greek and Mexican accents of his fellow singers.

For me, this Hoffmann - my first - feels like the beginning of an affair. I've lost sleep puzzling over its subtleties and as soon as an opportunity arises to catch the opera again - in period costume, Sixties plastics or post-apocalyptic body-armour - that stash of rainy-day air-miles will disappear. Like ETA Hoffmann himself, I'm looking for an ideal: a visually creative, musically stylish, dramatically persuasive production in an intimate setting, performed in the correct sequence by a Francophone cast. In the meantime, one intoxicatingly enthusiastic Mexican tenor will more than suffice.

Whither English National Opera? Nixon in China has been axed - making this the second time that a Peter Sellars production has been scheduled to re-open a London opera house and subsequently cancelled - and a new opening night for Rhinegold is still to be confirmed. Whither British opera in general, when Scottish Opera can produce a stunning Ring Cycle that only four cities are allowed to host under the current Arts Council regime? Can I suggest a solution? Put Paul Wade in charge.

Who? He's the Opera North chorus member who motivated 28 soloists, three conductors, a great pit orchestra and more than 80 other singers from four opera companies to create A Grand Night Out: British opera's celebration of the life of soprano Susan Chilcott, who died last year at the horribly young age of 40. The man so modest that he asked Robin Hart, the compère in Phyllida Lloyd's beautifully directed evening of musical tributes, not to mention him by name. (Sorry, Paul.) But it was love, not money or politics or ambition, that brought these musicians to Leeds last Sunday. We laughed and, inevitably, we cried too. Everyone there will have their own special moments, but the whole of A Grand Night Out was - like the woman whose life and work it honoured - so very much greater than the sum of its parts.


'Les Contes d'Hoffmann': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 17 Feb