CLASSICAL & OPERA: WHISKY GALORE

Of all creative types, why is it musicians to whom fate often seems to deal the cruellest blows? Deafness, blindness, paralysis, syphilis, insanity, abject poverty - you name it, and some composer will have endured it. Take poor old Offenbach, for example - having laboured all his life to churn out more than 60 operettas, he finally produced The Tales of Hoffmann, a truly grand concoction in the shape of an elaborate "opera fantastique" in five acts, only to die before he could put the finishing touches to it and reap the due acclaim.

Loaded to the brim with action, excitement, melodrama, pathos and a plethora of immediately hummable tunes, Hoffmann has long been a repertoire favourite and crowd-puller. This is, perhaps, why a new English National Opera production, directed by Graham Vick and conducted by Paul Daniel, is already generating an eager buzz of excitement. What's more, this new version, drawing on a host of recent research and newly discovered manuscript materials, is probably as near to what Offenbach intended as we are likely to get. On top of that, the production comes with a poignant Offenbachian parallel, for the newly commissioned English translation is by the sadly late John Wells.

Very much at the forefront of the action throughout will be the tenor Julian Gavin (above), for he takes on the gargantuan role of Hoffmann himself. "It's certainly a massive challenge," he comments. "I think the whole thing runs for around three-and-a-half hours, with intervals, and I'm virtually on stage all that time. We've had a rehearsal period of about nine weeks, which might sound like a lot, but it isn't; and I've been learning the part for months longer than that, too. I have sung it once before, in French, but this is a far better, state-of-the-art score - though it also means that I've virtually had to relearn the whole thing from scratch."

Gavin also suggests that his problems don't end once he knows the music, either. "The opera seems to me like a massive summation of everything Offenbach had to offer, so it's a real rag-bag of all sorts of styles and devices - almost a vaudeville. Alongside that all-embracing conception, Hoffmann becomes a very mercurial character, difficult to pin down, who goes through a number of transformations during the course of the tales. He's part of the action but, simultaneously, he also stands aside from it to comment and analyse. Plus, Hoffmann is rather fond of a drop or two of the hard stuff, and it's not easy to convey various states of inebriation, from the mildly merry to the blind drunk, at least not without the tendency to go over the top. Though all the whisky and wine, in the form of cold tea and Ribena I hasten to add, should ensure I don't dry up. But Tales from Hoffmann is a great piece and a real ensemble one as well. At ENO, I think we've assembled the ensemble it takes to pull it off, and hopefully the ghost of Offenbach will rest easy with this lavish view of his apotheosis."

English National Opera's new production of Offenbach's `The Tales of Hoffmann' opens at the London Coliseum, WC2 (0171-632 8300) 24 Feb 7pm

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