Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman) is one of those operas, like Verdi’s La Traviata, where the hits keep on coming. Once heard, Hoffman’s Kleinzach aria in the Prologue, Olympia’s mechanical-doll song in Act I, Antonia’s “Elle a fui, la tourtourelle” in Act II, and of course the Barcarolle (“Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour”) are not easily forgotten. In addition, the opera has many more captivating ensemble numbers, albeit without quite the same aural stickiness.
The opera’s tunefulness helps offset the somewhat depressing plot. Hoffman is a serial loser in affairs of the heart. He falls for the empty-headed dazzler Olympia (the mechanical doll), the talented Antonia (whose early death he helps cause), the cynical courtesan Giulietta (who abandons him for her pimp), and the preening opera singer Stella. His misery, which he seeks to drown in alcohol, is increased by a series of rivals wanting to destroy him: first Lindorf, who aims at stealing Stella in the Prologue and Epilogue, and then the satanic trio of Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto, who ensure that the three intervening romantic episodes (one per act) end in failure. Hoffman’s redemption comes at the hands of his long-suffering guardian angel/muse/conscience, Nicklausse. Cajoling, arguing with, and protecting him throughout, she consoles him after his final disappointment by telling him that his suffering is worth it: tears are essential to great art.
The current production of Hoffmann at the Opéra Bastille is about the best around. First mounted in 2000, Robert Carsen’s staging has lost nothing over the years in terms of visual and dramatic appeal. Clever ideas run riot: Hoffmann’s imitation of Kleinzach the dwarf, the setting of the Prologue and Epilogue in an opera bar engulfed at intermission by a mob of thirsty patrons, and the mechanical Olympia’s depiction as a nymphomaniac—all these made the audience laugh hard. And sometimes the spectators just sat in admiring silence as when, in Act II, the action is cleverly divided between an upper stage and a lower orchestra (although the separation rather weakens the singers’ ensemble work).
The most spectacular effect of the production, though, is right at the beginning of Act III. Those accustomed to gondolas, lanterns, and lounging courtesans in the Venetian scene are in for a surprise. After the lights go down and the introductory bars of the Barcarolle shimmer to life, the curtain opens to a parallel opera house whose alternating rows of theater seats move to the left, then right, as Giulietta and Nicklausse sing “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” (video here), before slowly filling with amorous audience members who accompany the duet in a D-major bath of sound. It is magical—at once disconcerting and eye-poppingly original. Though much of the audience was already familiar with what was to come, there was still a more-than-audible combination of aaahs and sighs when the Venetian scene opened.
The production’s acting and singing were very good. Michael Fabiano’s Hoffmann showed great timing, though as the evening progressed he seemed to tire. Laurent Naouri sang all the villains—Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto, and Dr. Miracle—and was appropriately despicable. Olympia’s short, spectacular, and demanding role was well-handled by Jody Devos. She took the Doll Song (“Les oiseaux dans la charmille”) at a slightly slower tempo than usual—to good effect. Vernonique Gens, one of the world’s great sopranos, seemed miscast as Giuletta but sang her small part gorgeously, while Ailyn Pérez’s dying Antonia was passionate and heartfelt. The great performance of the evening was by the opera’s true hero, Nicklausse the muse. Gaëlle Arquez was in great voice, and her Act II aria “Non, c’est une artiste,” that touching homage to musical art, was rapturous. Sir Mark Elder kept an excellent balance among orchestra, soloists, and José Luis Basso’s impeccably trained chorus and propelled things along with his crisp and sprightly conducting.
Time passed very quickly during this performance, and the audience’s rapt engagement clearly showed that this was a Hoffman worth seeing.