Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Les Contes d'Hoffmann

In September, the Opéra National de Paris put on one of my favorite operas, Les Contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach. It "came" to La Ciotat recently as live-filmed version at the Cinéma Lumière.

I also saw a live performance last year in Vienna and another televised version at home on PBS (Great Performances at the Met, anyone?); after seeing three different versions, I have to say that seeing an opera live is the best of all possible worlds. Even if some of the characters are miscast and annoying at the theater, if you're watching a "filmed live" version from the comfort of your living room or an overpriced cinema seat (the freaking Paris version cost me 12€), it just isn't the same!

That said, there were a number of things I really enjoyed about the Opéra Bastille's version. The opera was directed by a Canadian, Robert Carsen, who did not have quite the grandiosity of mise en scène as Mr. Friedkin, the director in Vienna, nor the penchant for puppets; in the beginning, the stage is set bare-bones, with the eponymous character lying in a drunken stupor stage right--his muse arrives in Greek habit and sings to him. 

The muse, played by Kate Aldrich, was wonderful: a great combination of comedic and soulful, with a beautiful voice. Hoffmann, on the other hand, was horrifically miscast as a dumpy little Italian whose trilling "R"s got in the way of his singing. The imposing Franck Ferrari, cast as Lindorf, Hoffman's doppelgänger and evil side, was much more convincing--and one of the few times I didn't feel bad rooting for the villain rather than the hero.

The bare-bones set continued on through the opera--the Keller scene transformed into intermission at the opera, where Hoffmann awaits a glimpse of his beloved Stella. The Teutonic charm of the student pub Stammtisch was ruined for me by this posh, Franco-centric rive droite version. Blech. It was OK...but it lacked charm and an element of Faustian suspense that was certainly present in the dark, damp, Punsch-filled scene of Friedkin's direction.

The bare-bones set design annoyed me at first, but I've since forgiven, considering that Mr. Carsen got his start in Shakespeare, where less is more and more is silly. The Olympia act is the only one that deviated from this scheme, transforming the stage into a mad scientist's laboratory fit for Frankenstein. The coquettish Olympia, well-voiced by Jane Archibald, was a little too coquette for my tastes--at one point she mounts Hoffmann on a hay barrel--a little obvious, if you want my opinion. Oh, the French and their obsession with sex!

The Antoina act is one I always find a little tedious. I guess I have a hard time figuring out how singing would kill a woman with a weak heart, when singing is supposed to heal the body--yes, certain studies have come out showing that music has the power to heal!--however difficult I find the premise, I enjoyed the beautiful Ana María Martínez as Antonia. In fact, I think she was the best-cast and most talented of them all, considering the Antonia act is always too long, too boring, and smack in the middle (typically right before the intermission, when I'm trying to keep my bladder from bursting). As mentioned, the muse was great, too, but their roles are so utterly different, and the muse is almost, if not always, a role that's hard to turn sour.

As for Giulietta, interpreted by Sophie Koch: talk about a prima donna! She completely overshadowed poor Hoffmann, belting out her lines and then stood on the stage looking bored when she wasn't singing. There was very little finesse to her performance--I know Giulietta is supposed to be a femme fatale and a bit of a bitch, but it didn't seem like there was much acting going on.

The ending was all right, pretty standard. Hoffmann and the muse go off into the sunset with a bottle of wine under each arm (I thought maybe the muse should enroll him in AA). I love the message of the opera: that an artist will always have inspiration, which is just as good, if not better, than love. Makes me feel good about being a writer with no social life. 

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