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February 14, 2012

Tales of Hoffmann

By Spear's

I’m still coming down from my acid trip of an operatic experience

I’m still coming down from my acid trip of an operatic experience of Richard Jones’ surreal production of The Tales of Hoffmann. First it must be said that all the singers in Offenbach’s fantastical opera were simply world class but then again, I would expect nothing less from the ENO.

Barry Banks’ washed up alcoholic Hoffmann was presented with gutsy acting and strong vibrant lyric singing. True to the original portrayal of this unlucky in love character and never faltering in this gargantuan role, Banks steams through his sorry fantastical tales of lost loves with energy and confidence while the award-winning American Georgia Jarman (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) meets him in stamina with a beautiful clear tone, sparkling top notes and plenty of superb acting.

Just to see her as Olympia the mechanical doll is enough to leave you awestruck and the added bonus of the sumptuous Christine Rice as Nicklausse, with her rich velvet voice and excellent portrayal of a Just William-styled schoolboy is the cherry on the top of this bubblegum trifle.

The sets by Giles Cadle are surreal and innovative with exaggerated perspective, which had the chorus pouring out of cupboard. I loved the projected image of a puffing clay pipe and the overall heady effect of a warped reality. Outstanding thought was given to the scenery and costumes, particularly Olympia’s cartoon dress straight from Disney’s Snow White.

This lost romantic fascination made clever references to Violetta’s death scene from La Traviata, Victorian ghostly melodramas, plenty of Mozart musical motifs and a shameless Carmenesque courtesan. We have three vignettes in one opera, each different musical styles yet linked by the same singers and overshadowed by a wonderfully menacing Simon Butteriss in his many devilish guises.

All this said, Richard Jones’ direction left me slightly perplexed. This is a confusing and esoteric enough opera at the best of times without a deliberate intention to go against plot or storyline and as a result I didn’t feel as much pathos for the characters as I should have. The chorus often stood in a blob whilst there was clearly so much going on in the text and music and there was a moment when Giulietta does some awkward solo disco moves during her big aria which I’m sure must have made her feel uncomfortable.

I adored Jones’ Trittico at Covent Garden and remembering his garish and hysterical l’Heure Espangole, I tapped in to his whacky ideas and warped characters, all in this case quite fitting to the super-romantic plot. This opera is well worth the ‘trip’ and if you want to hear some top class singing, take some acid without the drugs, this production is the one, if only to hear the stellar voices of Georgia Jarman and Christine Rice. Apart from anything else, a night out at Hoffmann will give you plenty to discuss at dinner afterwards or perhaps casually over a crack pipe.

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