Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Tales of Hoffmann - Opera Nationale de Paris (Bastille) 2002

We're lucky that nearly every Sunday evening the French Ontario TV station TFO broadcasts an opera, usually in French, but sometimes in another language with French subtitles. This past Sunday they showed 'The Tales of Hoffmann', recorded in 2002 in Paris, with Neil Shicoff as Hoffmann and Bryn Terfel as Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto.

I normally prefer traditional stagings of opera, so when I saw the bare stage at the opening of this version, I didn't expect much. I was pleasantly surprised, due mostly to the performances of the leading male singers. Shicoff's Hoffmann was quite a different interpretation from what I'd seen before. This isn't the eagerly-awaited life of the party one usually sees entering Luther's tavern to the applause of enthusiastic students. This Hoffmann begins the opera alone in the dark, passed out drunk on the floor before the crowd even enters. As the opera house patrons flood in during intermission, they don't even notice Hoffmann until Niklaus hauls him up off the floor. The modern dress manages to downplay Hoffmann's "poet" identity; in his disheveled suit and askew tie, he doesn't look like a poet. He looks like one of those raffish, hard-drinking reporters from a 1940s Hollywood film (when they were still called "reporters" and not "journalists"). He's already drunk, so when he starts calling out "Allumons le punch! Grisons-nous!" it's more obvious than usual that he's not drinking to celebrate anything - he's bitter and rather unpleasant.

This gives an odd atmosphere to his first song, the "Kleinzach" number.

I've never cared much for this song; it seems a rather silly interruption to the story, and I've always just waited it out until it segues into his reminiscenses of his beloved. But here, it works in a different way from what I've experienced before. When the crowd calls out for him to "sing that song about Kleinzach", it doesn't feel like a bunch of friends happily asking to hear a familiar, fun story. Suddenly I got the feeling that this was a crowd in a bar cruelly egging on a drunk to make a fool of himself. Maybe these people aren't his friends after all.

Bryn Terfel as Councillor Lindorf has already appeared before this, plotting his seduction of Stella, but now he starts interacting with Hoffmann. It's hardly a fair contest. Shicoff is actually a bit on the short side, and Terfel is quite tall, but it's more Shicoff's acting ability that convinces us of Hoffmann's emotional turmoil and weakness. Lindorf is coolly scornful of his rival; Hoffmann's taunts never leave a mark, and his physical stumbling and weakness are a metaphor for his inner disarray. When Lindorf mockingly asks, "Ah! ah! ah! monsieur aime donc quelque fois?" ("So, the gentleman is in love, is he?") Hoffmann really looks wounded as he pauses, clutching his sad little pages of poetry, and I suddenly felt genuinely pained for him. It's so easy to make him suffer, and he can never hide it, no matter how he tries. Torturing him is child's play for a hardened villain like Lindorf; I almost wondered at that point how Hoffmann could possibly make it through the entire opera.

The main way this Hoffmann is different from all the others I've seen is that here, Hoffmann from the beginning is a loser. He doesn't really have friends, except for Niklaus. This whole story is going to be a list of the ways and things he's lost over the years. It's both an explanation of why he's down and out today, and why his history is one of failure and loss.

The story of Hoffmann's 3 loves begins with Olympia, the doll, and for the most part I enjoyed it. Olympia's mechanical party song starts with her waving a fan, which she eventually folds up and turns into a microphone, as she carries on a pop-diva performance, even to the point of holding out the mic to the audience for "callbacks" during the little repetitions in her song. Very funny. I immediately thought of Madonna, but she could have been any pop singer. I could have done without the simulated sex during the song, but this seems to be becoming more common in modern productions. I can't understand it myself; Olympia is supposed to be a robot, without heart or feelings. Why directors seem to think that this should also make her a nymphomaniac is beyond me. I think it's just because this is the most obviously comic part of the opera, and today "comic" seems to equal "lewd". It was funny and even a little shocking, but in a silly way, when her dress flew off and she was walking around "nude", though of course the soprano was encased in plastic "body armour", that I couldn't help noticing was not anatomically correct, just the way a real Barbie doll would be. Poor Spalanzani kept trying in vain to cover her offensive areas with nothing but his hands, which didn't do much good, but added a lot to the humour. At least he was having the normal reaction to seeing his "daughter" marching around in public stark naked!

Terfel's Coppelius doesn't have that big a role in this part, but he did well enough. I didn't find him that overpowering as Coppelius. When he was plucking eyeballs out of the giant jar of preserved ones sitting on the table, I really expected him to start juggling them. That would be a nice touch, frankly; I wonder if it's hard for a baritone to juggle while singing? I'll bet not many could do it. When at the end, he pulls out a saw and goes roaring off in search of revenge, he reminded me a lot of Sweeney Todd.

But it's Shicoff I wanted to watch all throughout this section. He's playing a younger self, and you can see it in his almost little-boy skittishness (even though Shicoff was over 50 for this performance, he still manages to carry it off). He simply can't protect himself; "heart on the sleeve" doesn't nearly adequately describe the way this Hoffmann surrenders to love. When he drops to his knees in adoration before Olympia, it's almost indecent to see so much emotion pouring out of a man. He's both wonderful and pathetic. Coppelius's suggestion to Spalanzani to marry off Olympia to Hoffmann manages to convey more than the usual random malice of an evil man. It fits because Hoffmann is a loser. He's not a naive, innocent boy who can be deceived; he's the sort who'll always end up with a piece of junk because that's what he deserves. Poor Hoffmann! I can feel sorry for him while realizing that he brings this sort of disaster on himself. He's not just a victim - he's complicit in his own degradation.

The next section deals with Antonia, the artist. I didn't care for the set design that much. The bottom/front section is an empty orchestra pit; the top/rear is a stage with closed curtain (the curtain opens when Antonia's mother finally appears). Most of the action between Hoffmann and Antonia takes place in the lower section, and I found it so dark it was hard to see what was going on. All the chairs and music stands seemed just so much clutter for the performers to thread their way through; this was one instance when I would have LIKED a bare stage. Antonia was fine, though I didn't detect much fire in her. She seemed depressed and colourless, as if the dark stage design sucked the life out of her. When she finally gives in to her desire to sing, she didn't seem to have that much fire; I've always thought Antonia should have a sort of hectic excitement whenever she sings, so you can believe that this could push her past the limits of her physical strength.

Terfel's Dr. Miracle is pretty sinister in this section, though I was a little amused because he was dressed in a tuxedo. With those little glasses, he reminded me a lot of John Candy's Dr. Tongue. I kept thinking, "Welcome to Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Opera!" The villain really dominates this section of the opera; in fact, Hoffmann hardly appears in it except near the beginning. Instead, it's a long interview between Miracle and M. Crespel, then another long interview between Miracle and Antonia. Hoffmann and Dr. Miracle don't actually meet at all. Antonia seems to be the best "match" for Hoffmann - they're both artists and they do genuinely love each other. But Hoffmann still looks like a scruffy loser; you can see why M. Crespel doesn't want this guy hanging around his lovely, talented daughter - he looks like a bum. He does lose her, but it's not exactly his fault this time. Instead, the problem seems to be that he's drawn to a woman he can never really win. She's an artist, and she'll choose her art over him, no matter how much he means to her, even though in the end it costs her life.

Finally, we come to the Giulietta segment, which naturally starts off with an orgy, which I found a bit meh, but other people seem to like this sort of thing. Giulietta is quite a piece of work - she looks like a 1920s blonde movie star, with lots of style and absolutely no heart whatsoever. I found her strangely convincing as a femme fatale for hire. The background of this set is a wall of (moving) theatre seats; the chorus occupies these seats both as participants in the action, and then will suddenly transform into an audience observing the performance. It's surprisingly effective to see the main performers suddenly turn their backs to us and stand facing this applauding "audience" - we're suddenly "backstage" watching someone else's theatre experience. Hoffmann arrives on the scene clutching a bottle; he's moved on from the bamboozled dope he was with Olympia and the runner-up he was with Antonia. Now he fancies himself a man of the world, and he walks right into Giulietta's setup. It's obvious to everyone else that she's out of his league, and can only be paying attention to him for some sinister purpose, but he thinks he's got a chance with her. Once again, Hoffmann throws himself head-first into this love affair, which we quickly realize is overwhelmingly sexual on his part. When he realizes he's been tricked out of his reflection, his anguish is real and crushing. As Giulietta is about to walk out of his life for good, he falls on his knees before her and buries his face between her thighs - she doesn't even notice him. The scene ends with Hoffmann having killed his rival for nothing, and the villain Dapertutto towering over him as he lies broken and damned.

Back we come to the tavern for the epilogue, where we discover that all 3 women are really 1 woman: Stella. Hoffmann, the eternal loser, is in the process of losing her, in all 3 ways we've just witnessed. She's a vain, empty flirt who performs a role; she's an artist who'll always care more about opera than about him; and she's a whore who can be bought by Lindorf's box of jewellery. The crowd surges out, following the diva and the triumphant villain, as Hoffmann collapses into a drunken stupor. Then the final reveal comes: Hoffmann's faithful friend Niklaus reappears, this time as the Muse. He can't see her, but she caresses him and revives him; he even momentarily leans his weary head on her shoulder, then notices his page of poetry lying scattered on the floor. His suffering turns to inspiration, and he begins to write. With her hand on his shoulder, he gets up and walks toward the distant light, a page of poetry held triumphantly aloft. I've seen versions where this final scene with the Muse is cut (I think the Powell and Pressburger film ends the film with the students singing as they leave), but it's a beautiful ending. Hoffmann is no longer a loser - he's been redeemed by his Art.

One thing that doesn't quite work for me is the deliberate theme of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' that is carefully worked through the entire opera. Stella is performing in 'Don Giovanni'; the music scattered about the set in the Antonia scene is 'Don Giovanni', and I think Dapertutto is holding it during Hoffmann's destruction. It's the role Antonia's mother is costumed for; all the women carry the same black fan. There are some parallels between that opera and 'Tales of Hoffmann', but I don't think it quite works. Yes, in each case the hero is involved with 3 different women. But Hoffmann is uniformly unsuccessful in love, whereas up until this point, Don Giovanni is famous for his success. Both protagonists are accompanied by a companion (Niklaus/Leporello) who continually tries and fails to turn the main character from his mistaken path. And by the end of Act III Hoffmann has committed murder, lost his soul and even "falls" as if to damnation, like Don Giovanni but he is saved in the end. "Don Giovanni" doesn't have a separate villain; Don Giovanni IS the villain, as well as the hero. And the "happy ending" in "Don Giovanni" comes from the restoration of virtue through the destruction of vice; Hoffmann's ending is happy even though evil seems to have triumphed. They even eliminated the final scene in Act III where Giulietta accidentally drinks poison; "Ah, Giulietta, maladroite!" growls Dapertutto as his useful tool foolishly kills herself. So we never see anyone punished for their bad actions, only Hoffmann suffers. But at least his suffering is not pointless; he suffered as long as he sought something other than Art. And having suffered, he can now become the great artist he was meant to be, and transform his suffering into beauty.


Anonymous Pageantmaster said...

I have been enthralled with Tales of Hoffmann ever since I saw it with my parents as a youngster. Bravo - a tour de force.

6:17 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Well, then I strongly recommend you give this version a try, if you can locate it. Shicoff really is a natural at this role, the way Ruggero Raimondi seems born to play Scarpia. Some people just define a role for an entire generation. And I think Tales of Hoffmann was the first opera I recall seeing too, though on TV. It was enchanting.

8:27 pm  
Anonymous Pageantmaster said...

Thank you Dr Mabuse for your encouragement to explore this further.

4:21 pm  

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