Review of the Palau de les Arts 2021-22: The Tales of Hoffmann
After battling the general increase in COVID infections, the Palau de Les Arts managed to raise its curtain to present “The Tales of Hoffmann” on 23rd from January, after canceling the original premiere date of January 20and. Expectations were high, as this production used one of the most comprehensive critical editions (by M. Kaye and JC Keck), which contains much additional music rarely performed before.
It also marked the debut of the role of Pretty Yende, taking on all three female lead roles.
Marc Minkowski, famous for his musicological research, conducted the production, which included additional arias for Nicklausse and Dapertutto, new duets for Hoffmann and, except for the famous “barcarolle”, a brand new number by Giulietta. Eighty percent of the music that appears in this edition has rarely, if ever, been performed in the history of Offenbach’s only opera.
The opera ends with an “apotheosis” ensemble scene, making the ending triumphant, as opposed to the traditional and sad last aria “the muse”. Offenbach died before he had completed the score, leading to a situation where, since its premiere, the piece has been rearranged and reinterpreted by those who intend to perform it. This created several versions of the score, although Choudens’ first published edition became the one traditionally used.
The M. Kaye & JC Keck edition features three hours of music, performed without the traditional second-verse cuts in arias and duets. Minkowski presented Offenbach’s work with astonishing energy, choosing exaggerated, rapid tempos and emphasizing the timbral colors of the orchestra, especially the wind section. He emphasized the brightness of the score above the dark and dramatic momentum present in several tracks. The Orchestra de la Comunitat Valenciana rang loud and clear, and the harp solo received spontaneous applause after the interlude between Giulietta’s act and the epilogue. The Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana were balanced and brilliant in the many interventions they had in Offenbach’s masterpiece: a real accomplishment, given that they sang masked throughout due to the restrictions COVID.
American bel canto tenor John Osborn performed the titular Hoffmann. He showed off his flawless vocal technique and stamina, which helped him finish the performance with a fresh voice. It was a very long version of the opera, and neither the arias nor Osborn’s duets had cuts.
He has a lirico-leggero voice with a midrange that has gained volume and consistency, making him ideal for a difficult role that requires complete control over the entire tenor vocal range. Osborn’s entry, “Good day friend”, was strong, aggressive and determined, portraying in this first line Hoffmann’s rage and frustration. He colors his voice, darkens the sound without losing projection, to navigate the baritone tessitura of the Epilogue.
He presented a fiery and energetic “Balad du Kleinzack”, maintaining the emotion and navigating easily in the passagio section of the voice. He also spoke a resounding high C to end the piece. However, he could also become melancholic, especially when he colored his voice with sweetness by evoking “three mistresses”.
Osborn managed to produce a more youthful sound for Olympia’s Act, as Hoffmann is believed to be in his early twenties, and sang the long lyrical lines with an incredible crescendo/diminuendo, delivering sure and ringing B-flats. He sings the aria “Ah vivre deux” with ardor and melancholy, with an exquisite mezza voce.
Osborn sang Antonia’s act with delicacy, navigating easily through the long melodic lines that rise to the high natural B. Osborn’s range is so wide and his high notes are sung so easily that the natural Bs and high Cs sound like the natural progression of Offenbach’s melodies, rather than the big, climactic high notes that more lyrical or spinto tenors sing. . The need for heavy tenor voices for Hoffmann, however, is a misconception. The orchestration when Hoffmann sings isn’t loud, so a big voice isn’t necessary to be heard. Second, as in Acte d’Antonia, the score calls for a “soft chant” in a high range. Osborn’s vocalitá is closest to the true French romantic tenor, due to its flexibility, stunning use of dynamics, and effortless high notes.
However, Osborn can also come across as heroic and menacing. That’s what he did brilliantly in his first aria from Giulietta, “Friends, tender and dreamy love”, which he sang with his two original verses. He hit several B-flats perfectly, even interpolating a high C at the end. His second tune, “Oh god! D Quelle ivresse”, also showed his ability to sing comfortably in a high range written above the passaggio, constantly moving between G and A in long legato lines. Osborn sang the last verse with pianissimo, delivering an exquisite, soaring high A.
After a long night of singing, this edition includes a repeat of “Kleinzach” in a higher key, requiring the tenor to hit a high D natural and two C sharps. Osborn showed off his impressive high register by being able to sing this devilishly high-pitched line seamlessly after three hours of performance. Osborn presented a melancholic and romantic personification of the tormented poet who was at once expressive, moving and believable.
South African soprano Pretty Yende had the daunting task of singing the three heroines, whose vocal writing differs so radically from one to the other that they are usually performed by three different sopranos. Yende’s voice transforms into a pure lyrical instrument as her midrange grows and darkens. The bel canto repertoire she had sung until now, however, allowed her to sing all the coloratura and treble of Olympia during the first act. She interpolated several additional E-flats to her famous “doll song” tune, “Les Oiseaux dans le Bower”. She kept control to sing staccato high notes, but the E-flat ending proved a bit heavy for the singer, who barely held the note. Yende had trouble on the coloratura section at the end of the act, breathing during the fast scales, which broke her momentum and had the effect of setting her slightly back from the music and blurring the coloratura. That said, she delivered an immaculate trill on the high D at the end of her intervention.
Antonia proved to be the most suitable role for Yende’s voice. The lyrical writing, keeping the voice in the middle but with ascents to natural D, suited Yende’s instrument perfectly. His voice was powerful, dark, brilliant and expressive. Her trio with bass and mezzo was thrilling and moving and became the highlight of her performance.
The role of Giulietta is written for an operatic soprano in this version – the role has traditionally been performed by mezzo-sopranos due to poor writing in previous editions of the score – giving an optional version of Giulietta’s aria” Love says to him” for a light soprano. The score is filled with fast scales, staccato notes and several high B-flats. Yende chose the lyrical version of the aria, which maintains a central writing and does not exceed the natural A, showing the development of Yende’s voice in pure lyrical.
Filling out the cast of characters
Italian bass-baritone Alex Esposito portrayed the four “evil” characters. He gave a truthful and detailed personification of each character, avoiding typical cliches and giving his portrayal dramatic depth. Doctor Miracle became the true personification of the devil and was Exposito’s strongest rendition. In the end, Esposito used all his vocal resources to create four completely different villains, singing with impeccable French style and strong projection. It’s a shame that this version doesn’t include the famous and beautiful bass tune “Diamond Sparkle” and instead uses the unknown but less lyrical “Turn, turn, mirror”.
Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy sang the dual role of La muse/Nicklausse. She has a rich voice with a fair vibrato, a modest volume, but sure in the high register. This she elegantly showed in the several natural B-tones she sang during the performance. The role of the mezzo is greatly expanded in this critical edition with the addition of many new pieces. These include two tunes as well as large interventions within the ensemble numbers. Murrihy sang this demanding part with ease and portrayed an energetic young companion to the aloof Hoffmann.
Dutch tenor Marcel Beekman was brilliant in his personification of all four short comic tenor roles. He has incredible projection, which made his voice audible to the rest of the cast. His ease in coloring and defining each line seemed endless, creating a stunning contrast between the four roles. His rendition of Franz’s aria “Day and Night” was entertaining, and he showed the richness of his voice in a brilliant natural A pianissimo and a strong, sustained final high G.
Lack of clarity
German director Johannes Erath presented a solid theatrical production. Beginning with a curtain at the back of the stage in the Prologue which showed a mirror image of the interior of Théâtre Les Arts, there were constant references throughout the performance to the interior architecture of the theatre.
The set was composed of three pieces, one inside the other, creating a wonderful illusion of perspective, while the idea of ”reflection”, first hinted at in the Prologue, was maintained throughout by two mirrors which reproduced the image of the coins. To infinity. Erath used multiple theatrical resources – lighting, projections, trapdoors, set deconstruction, mirrors and dancers – to make each scene and act of the opera unique. The use of the same set for all acts and the leitmotif of a long white ballgown – which the characters hold and caress and the soprano wears in each act – gave a wonderful sense of continuum.
The production was entertaining and efficient, but the concept the director wanted to present was unfortunately not at all clear. The plot of the opera was therefore confused and the actions seen on stage were a far cry from the original libretto by Jules Barbier. To be quite frank, it got to a point where we no longer understood what was happening on stage.
In the end, the decision of the Palau de Les Arts to present the most comprehensive critical edition ever of Offenbach’s unique opera turned out to be truly formidable. However, the production, while entertaining, was confusing and cast a dark shadow over the rest of the production.