ENO at the London Coliseum
Hoffmann (as in Ernst Theodor Amadeus) may be the hero (or anti-hero) of these bizarre tales, but it's Offenbach (as in Jacques) who calls the tunes. That is at least one aspect of this deeply disappointing evening that producer Graham Vick and his designer Tobias Hoheisel have got right. They recognise the French sensibility, the irreverence, the sourness and cynicism of Offenbach's unfinished opera.
Hoheisel deposits us at a tawdry night-spot, a poor man's Maxim's, in Toulouse-Lautrec's Montmartre. Everything, everybody, has seen better days, but the show goes on, and on. The Muse makes her entrance "through the booze", and Hoffmann's love-life flashes before him in a series of woozy tableaux. Hoheisel's eerie sense of the grotesque, the off-kilter, is right on. This is Toulouse-Lautrec under the influence, the colours more garish, the imagery distorted, exaggerated, cheapened, vulgarised. It's the look of disillusionment, the mirror of disenchantment.
But that's as far as it goes. This portrait of the artist searching for true love when all along it's been his constant companion - his creative spirit, his muse - is a tough one to crack. Its spirit (as Hoffmann himself knows all too well) is elusive. How to play it? The demon drink is so unpredictable. One moment you're a riot, happy and abandoned, gay, camp even, passions rising; the next you're maudlin, tearful, pathos turning to bathos and reminiscence to high-romance only to curdle in the retelling of it.
That's the capricious nature of The Tales of Hoffmann, but if you pace it as evenly (and as ponderously) as Vick does here, then watching it is a bit like being stone-cold sober when all around you are roaring drunk. This is a long, long evening from which the mother of all hang-overs might just bring some relief. It's as if Vick keeps taking leave of absence. The dialogue, normally one of his great strengths (and he himself had a hand in it, finishing off the late John Wells's translation), is deadly, the one exception being John Tomlinson's well wicked assumption of Hoffmann's dark side. From cockney con man to vampiric doctor to foppish pimp, your heart doesn't sink when his singing stops.
Or starts. If there's one thing this quirky and bewilderingly diverse score demands from its singers, it's style, great style. And if your Hoffmann - Julian Gavin - though perfectly sound, lacks flair and panache, if he has to fight a little for those bobby-dazzling top notes, then already the show is off on the wrong footing. Far more critical, and far more distressing here, though, was the condition of Rosa Mannion's voice. Could this really be the same singer whose ENO Violetta was such a conspicuous personal triumph less than two years ago? Two years is a long time in a singer's life, I know, but to hear her wrestling with Olympia's coloratura (this mechanical doll was in serious trouble before ever the key had been turned), skimping the runs, snatching at top notes (you can't play the comedy if you're fighting the text); and then again to hear Antonia's song so poorly tuned, so lacklustre, so pushed (something is horribly awry with the support of the voice). Please, this once fine singer needs urgent attention. And multiply that by four...
So was anything of substance salvaged from a sorry occasion? Well, Andrew Forbes-Lane made the most of his assorted side-kicks, Susan Parry (as Nicklausse) gave another uncannily credible boy her customary ardour, and Jean Rigby rather fittingly popped up as a diva - Antonia's mother. In the show's fruitiest number (and Vick's finest moment) Antonia, unable to resist the lure of the limelight, takes centrestage alongside her mum. Doctor Miracle supervises the flowers, basket upon basket of them, a veritable garden of conceit. Vanity has triumphed, Antonia succumbs. Venice, the Barcarolle and whores await Hoffmann.
But meanwhile, his first love, Stella, is finishing up next door in Don Giovanni, and we in the audience are reminded that the opera house is only one step away from the public house. Despite Paul Daniel's best efforts to inject some energy into the proceedings, I know where I'd rather have been.
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