Tales of Hoffman 1
Photo by Antoni Bofill
Growing up, I was taken on one or two unforgettable occasions to Covent Garden, the grandest of the grand, but my real operatic education was at the lesser, but vitally valuable Sadlers Wells. Many of the sopranos I heard there went on to global fame, but at the time all that mattered was being there on a velvet-covered seat in my best dress, listening to the singing and swooning at the story.
Barcelona also has the luxury of two levels of opera, thanks to the system at the Liceu which frequently offers higher-priced star-studded performances alternating with what they call the popular performances. The only difference, apart from affordability, is that the major roles in the popular performances are played by aspiring singers, not stars. The production is movement-for-movement the same and so are the singers who play the lesser roles. All of which goes to prove, once again, what a vital part the Liceu plays in both the glamour and culture that make Barcelona so attractive.
Most people know at least one piece of music by the 19th-century composer of Tales of Hoffmann, Jacques Offenbach: the rambunctious dance from Orpheus in the Underworld, which was the biggest—and cheekiest—hit of the 100 or so operettas that he composed. Who doesn’t know the Can-Can?
Offenbach died before signing-off on Tales of Hoffmann, as a result of which there are several slightly different versions. The one on view at the Liceu is believed to be the closest to what he intended. The story is basically sad, though the action contains lively and comic episodes. Hoffmann, a young poet, has completely lost his way in life. He has gone from one failed love to another, and is currently lusting after Stella, a singer who is the toast of Paris. His muse is determined to save him and his talent, though it appears to be a losing battle. In a drunken evening at his favorite tavern, Hoffmann tells the assembled crowd the sad story of his three earlier loves: Olympia, the mechanical doll he was tricked into thinking was human; Antonia, a young singer with a superb voice that was destined to kill her frail body, Giulietta, a hardhearted courtesan who conspired with her nasty cohort to rob Hoffmann of his soul. The story falls neatly into three parts, with a prologue and epilogue to explain it.
The A-team singers included Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Natalie Dessay as Antonia, Tatiana Pavlovskaya as Giulietta and Susana Cordon as Stella. Originally, Natalie Dessay had agreed to play all of these parts, but for an unannounced reason decided to restrict herself to Antonia. She was exquisite in that limited role; fragile and full of life; her voice was, as ever, superb. I would say that I deeply regret her decision, were it not for the fact that it gave Kathleen Kim the chance to show off her superlative, funny, and beautifully sung Olympia, a role which has almost become her private property. Tatiana Pavlovskaya was adequate as Giulietta, but less outstanding than the other women.
The star of the evening, however, was undoubtedly Laurent Naouri, who played the four incarnations of evil, and did it with a panache and credibility that curled my toes. He slithered around the stage, a human snake determined to inflict misery. I don’t know how, but even his marvelous baritone voice managed to project his terrifying personality. I do hope we see and hear much more of him.
Hoffman was sung by Michael Spyres, who captured the personality well and had a pleasing, but slightly light voice. And Michèle Losier as the Muse was delicate and enchanting. Most of the lesser roles were played with distinction, especially Carlos Chausson as Crespel, the agonized father of Antonia.
Conductor Stéphane Denève had an excellent rapport with the orchestra, so the only downside of the evening for me was the actual staging. It was not entirely new, based on an old production by the same designer, Laurent Pelly. It consisted of constantly moving parts, more like a test of an industrial machine than a backdrop to a story. I found it disturbing and distracting when huge chunks of scenery started gliding around, vying with the singers for audience attention. Why did Antonia’s home have to look like the backstairs of a hospital wing? And was it bash-you-on-the-head symbolism that the stairs on which Hoffmann and Antonia sang to each other of their love separated, creating a gulch, and then came back together? Why did the drinkers in the tavern sit in a long line underneath the cloakroom coat hangers? What sort of a concept of a pub and its conviviality was that?
The B-team, next night, with Eglise Gutiérrez singing all the female roles except Olympia (the brilliant Kathleen Kim again), was solid and workmanlike, though without the special gleam of stardom. Naouri was sorely missed as the embodiment of evil. Oren Gradus did a solid job, and had I not seen Naouri the night before, I might have been satisfied. But he failed to exude the evil that made the previous performance so exciting. Hoffmann, sung by Ismael Jordi, was fine but not great. Gutiérrez was also very acceptable, although she received some loud boos from above and Gemma Coma-Alabert played the Muse in a very different way that was not wrong, but lacked the delicacy of Losier.
Fair enough! The whole point of the A and B team performances is to make it possible for more than just the elite to go to the opera. And with the same production and the same excellent singers in the lesser roles, the audience was by no means cheated. The whole evening was fine and sufficient; just not quite the same.
My advice: if you can spring for the A-team performances on February 11, 14, 17, 20 or 23, do so, even if you sit in the fifth tier with binoculars. But if you go to the popular performances on February 12, 16, or 19, you won’t regret it.
And don’t forget, Kurt Weil’s “Street Scene” runs for just four performances, on March 1, 2, 4 and 5. And on March 6, the unforgettable Joyce DiDonato is giving her solo concert entitled “Drama Queens.”