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Offenbach - Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Shicoff, Swenson, Terfel, Rancatore, Mentzer, Uria-Monzon, Senechal, Gubisch, Lopez Cobos
Live recording Opéra National de Paris - Bastille October 2002

TDK DV-OPLCDH [16:9, 173 mins]

The Tales of Hoffmann has never been a favourite opera of mine; I find Offenbach's operettas less witty and enjoyable than Sullivan's, and that he is inclined to become ponderous and dull when trying to be serious, as does our British treasure. I remember enjoying best this lengthy fantasy, about love through rose coloured spectacles, in a film with a heavily cut Beecham sound-track, seen on TV long ago, but in the opera house have generally been disappointed. This new DVD uses the Choudens 1907 edition, with additional items which came to light more recently.

It is remarkable to learn from Gramophone December 1988 that Neil Shicoff recorded the title role so long ago, with a starry cast in Brussels. Of the young Shicoff, Alan Blyth wrote: "Shicoff, sounding uncannily like Domingo in voice and accent, is a sensitive and ardent Hoffmann, rather more keen than his model to sing in a half-voice, but sometimes inclined to be too lacrymose, as in his romance in the Giulietta act, where he cannot efface memories of the likes of Tauber, Patzak and Gedda—tenors today seldom caress a vocal line as did their predecessors. Shicoff's French is variable." It is a strenuous, demanding part, and I recall hearing it with more lyrical voices than Shicoff's is now. And another admired recording has Dame Joan Sutherland "easily encompassing all four heroines".

Vision always tends to demand primacy, and this Robert Carsen version from the huge Bastille opera house starts excitingly, placing us behind a long, busy bar. Drunkenness rules, and its virtue is celebrated throughout the evening, but that eventually becomes tedious.

I found the Olympia act the most entertaining, with a 'naughty' treatment of the doll, whose key for essential winding-up required mid-aria is located 'unusually'. Désirée Rancantoré deals with it all in good part, but I do remember first acquaintance with her aria on a 78 being more elegant and dazzling; who the coloratura soprano was, I cannot say? Antonia (Ruth Ann Swenson) is tricked into singing herself to death in the orchestra pit by an evil Bryn Terfel (his multi-role assumptions here less interesting than the transformations asMephistofeles in the recent Faust at Covent Garden). Antonia's deceased prima-donna mother is up on stage, instead of singing out of her portrait, as I thought she should....

Economy goes to the limit with the Venice scene, which repeats the now overdone gimmick of having the chorus on theatre seats on stage; an audience watched by an audience (c.f. Platée and Pagliacci). The Venetian waterways and gondolas are represented by rows of seats which move ingeniously from right to left and left to right simultaneously. An unromantic setting for the Big Tune we've been waiting for so long.

What really turned us off, over the long duration of this opera, was the music, which rarely grabbed our attention away from the sights on the screen.

But don't be too put off by me; do wait for 'balanced judgments' to appear from Offenbach enthusiasts and French opera specialists.

© Peter Grahame Woolf