What tales the poet Hoffmann has to tell. In the three hours plus of Offenbach’s comic opera Hoffmann’s creative muse leads him to make-believe worlds in which he encounters living dolls, singing portraits and people who lose their reflections – a heightened reality where all manner of dark and sexual fantasies come to life in the poet’s mind.
From the off-beat, black humour of his previous productions it would seem that Richard Jones was the ideal director for the job. So why is his new production for English National Opera, shared with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, a bit of a disappointment?
The idea of the opera as an autobiographical narrative, with Hoffmann starting out a conker-playing, short-trousered schoolboy, is a good one and Jones’s eye for the absurd transforms Hoffmann’s room into some typically creepy locales – a 1950s children’s party presided over by a pair of con-artists and a sleekly modern doctor’s surgery furnished with sinister equipment. But the production’s grip comes and goes: it keeps making gestures that are unclear (why Hoffmann’s three sidekicks?) and the denouements of both the Antonia and Giulietta stories are messily handled.
Fortunately, yet again this season ENO has assembled a strong cast. Barry Banks is a vivid Hoffmann, singing tirelessly with a bright focus that makes up for him not being a true romantic tenor, and the American soprano Georgia Jarman turns in a tour de force as all four of his leading ladies. Not only does she have an array of voices, as adept at Olympia’s high-wire tricks as Antonia’s lyricism, but the characters are so different. Who would have guessed Antonia and Giulietta were one and the same?
With black-voiced Clive Bayley as Hoffmann’s quadruple nemesis, the dark side of the opera is in safe hands (though “Scintille, diamant” tests him). Christine Rice sings an impressively rich-toned Nicklausse and Simon Butteriss delivers four-fold amusement in the character tenor roles. It is a shame that ENO has to use the sung recitatives – spoken dialogue is best avoided in the huge Coliseum – but the conductor, Antony Walker, is solidly in charge. If the evening seems a long one, it is because the telling of the tales is not as sharp as it could be.