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Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann / Dessay, Kim, Spyres, Deneve

Offenbach / Dessay / Naouri
Release Date: 01/28/2014 
Label:  Erato   Catalog #: 636914  
Composer:  Jacques Offenbach
Performer:  Laurent NaouriMichael SpyresKathleen KimNatalie Dessay,   ... 
Conductor:  Stéphane Denève
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Barcelona Teatro Liceu OrchestraBarcelona Teatro Liceu Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

OFFENBACH Les contes d’Hoffmann Stéphane Denève, cond; Michael Spyres ( Hoffmann ); Laurent Naouri ( Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, Dapertutto ); Kathleen Kim ( Olympia ); Natalie Dessay ( Antonia ); Tatiana Pavlovskaya ( Giulietta ); Michèle Losier ( Nicklausse, Read more Muse ); Susan Cordón ( Stella ); Francisco Vas ( Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, Pitichinaccio ); Manel Esteve Madrid ( Spalanzani ); Isaac Galán ( Schlémil, Hermann ); Carlos Chausson ( Crespel ); Gran Teatre del Liceu Ch & SO ERATO 4636914 (2 DVDs: 183:00) Live: Barcelona 2/20 & 23/2013

Here we have a brand spanking new DVD version of Offenbach’s famous opera, co-edited by Michael Kaye in conjunction with Jean-Christophe Keck. The production, directed by Laurent Pelly, is a reworking of the production he gave at Opéra de Lyon a decade ago. This incarnation was shared by Gran Teatre del Liceu, San Francisco Opera, and Opéra National de Lyon and recasts the opera in five acts, naming the Prologue as act I and the Epilogue as act V.

Apparently, Pelly reworked this production so thoroughly that the cast spent five weeks rehearsing on the sets. The costumes hark back to Offenbach’s time, while the sets are utilitarian and rather dark. Olympia skims across the stage while singing the “doll song” as well as flying through the air, propelled by what appears to be a boom crane attached to her back. How Kim could sing “Les oiseau” with all its tricky variants and high notes while flying around stage, I have no idea; I’d be scared speechless. In the Antonia act (placed between Olympia and Giulietta) one never sees even a painting of her mother; the voice just comes from out of nowhere. Yet, by and large, the direction works well in creating atmosphere and Pelly certainly understands the characters well enough that Hoffmann appears occasionally drunk or hallucinating, Spalanzani looks and acts a bit like Professor Irwin Corey, and Naouri as the villains presents a good, menacing figure. As Dr. Miracle he was particularly boisterous and annoying, displaying a small bottle of bright green fluid with bubbles in it that looked like antifreeze and recommending that Antonia take it twice a day as her medication. At that moment I wondered: If you don’t like your doctor, do you have to keep him?

The vocal stars of this show, however, are Spyres as Hoffmann, Kim as Olympia, and especially Losier as Nicklausse/The Muse. Never in my life have I seen and heard such a spectacular Nicklausse; Losier’s voice is bright and heady, rings true on pitch, and possesses flawless and perfect diction, while her acting is simply sensational. She actually walks, moves, and makes faces like a young “wise guy,” which Nicklausse is supposed to be, and far less like the “woman in drag” that is what she actually is. Indeed, at many moments in the opera I had the strange feeling that she was channeling Chico Marx in the way she moved, and mugged, with unerring comic timing. She almost stole the show, at least whenever she was onstage. Dessay, fine musician and actress that she is, unfortunately sounded a bit worn and fluttery through most of her singing but especially during “Elle a fui,” which is a shame because the tessitura of this role really shouldn’t have taxed her much. Naouri also begins rather wobbly but manages to get his dark bass voice under control halfway through the Luther’s Tavern Scene in the Prologue (now act I). Pavlovskaya, as Giulietta, has an extraordinarily powerful voice but, like so many Eastern European sopranos, her tone production is occasionally a bit fluttery and unsteady.

As usual, Denève conducts with good orchestral balance and rhythmic precision if a little on the slow side, but one gets so wrapped up in the production that this is never a distraction. Of course, since the musicologists were busy at work on the score, there are loads of new passages, even new to me since I heard the Kent Nagano recording. Sometimes I wonder how much of modern editions consist of pages of crossed-out bars of music found in the basement of the Paris Conservatoire. I’ve mentioned before that, to a certain extent, the Michael Kaye rewrite of Hoffmann somewhat resembles a Mr. Potato Head with four legs, three arms, and an unidentified growth coming out of the back of its head, but except for one passage sung by Coppelius in the Olympia act, which sounded to me more like Offenbach’s old operetta style and not really like music designed for Hoffmann, almost all the passages heard in this production sound apropos to the situation, if a little odd to those of us who grew up on the “bad” old Monte Carlo edition.

In fact, there were even more changes and new music in the last “official” act (Giulietta), where after the Giulietta-Hoffmann duet there is more dialogue between Hoffmann and Schlémil, the former runs Giulietta through with Dapertutto’s sword, and the act ends with a dramatic chorus of onlookers and police charging Hoffmann with their murders (yet he gets away). Also gone is not only the old “Scintille, diamant” aria (which was never written for Hoffmann to begin with) but even the “Tourne, tourne, miroir” that José van Dam sang in the Nagano recording (which was another and different Michael Kaye edition, which also turned Giulietta into a high soprano and gave her a florid aria, sung in that recording by Sumi Jo.).

In the Epilogue (now act V), Stella actually sings, first an arietta and then a duet with Hoffmann in which the latter spurns her—more new music. Hoffmann also interacts with Lindorf, comparing Kleinzach’s physical ugliness with the Councilor’s inside ugliness. Then he collapses in a drunken heap while the men’s chorus sings its drinking song from the Prologue, but in this case the opera does not run out on Nicklausse’s “Pauvre Hoffmann … Des cendres de ton cœur,” but rather on a different piece sung lovingly by the Muse (for so she has become again) to a delirious Hoffmann that poets suffer when they love, but the suffering makes them great. The words fit the dramatic situation much better, but between you and me and the lamppost, I prefer “Des cendres de ton cœur.” This new concluding music ends the opera quietly.

Are we confused yet? Well, I hope not. The cast has worked through all these changes so thoroughly that their presentation seems natural and right, even though I had never heard about 20 percent of this music before. Nor am I entirely convinced that Offenbach, a practical man of the theater, would have eventually settled on this long and rambling a version of his opera. I’m sure he would have noted that some people’s attentions were wandering and cut at least 10–12 minutes of music out of this thing. Even so, with all its good points, this seems to me the finest and most convincing DVD production of Hoffmann currently available, and certainly one I will be watching again and again.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Les contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach
Performer:  Laurent Naouri (Baritone), Michael Spyres (Tenor), Kathleen Kim (Soprano),
Natalie Dessay (Soprano), Tatiana Pavlovskaya (Soprano), Michele Losier (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Stéphane Denève
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Barcelona Teatro Liceu Orchestra,  Barcelona Teatro Liceu Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1881; Paris, France 

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