Tales of Hoffmann

Last night with D to Opera Australia’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

I missed the famed Sutherland-Bonynge production (I was too young and my parents too frugal), even though I was going through something of an Offenbach craze at the time.  This is nevertheless the third production I have seen of this in Sydney in a little over 10 years.  I still think that the first production I saw, by Francisco Negrin, was the best, and I can’t understand why it was never revived: Opera Australia mounted Ian Judge’s production (first seen in Australia in 1992 at the now defunct Victorian State Opera) in 2001.

The opera itself (more properly an operetta: there is spoken dialogue) has an intriguing back-story.  It was adapted from an 1851  play by the librettists of Gounod’s Faust, and is part of the strange after-life of early German Romanticism. Offenbach embarked on it as something of a come-back vehicle after his operettas suffered an eclipse with the passing of the second empire  (presumably the carnage of the Paris Commune was bad for business).  Although it is usually thought of as marking an artistic new turn on his part, this should not be overstated – the famous Barcarolle, inserted when the work was first performed in 1881 (Offenbach died in 1880) actually comes from an earlier and now forgotten Offenbach operetta.

The conceit is that Hoffmann, awaiting an assignation with the opera singer, Stella after a performance that night of Don Giovanni [I take this to be a reference to Hoffmann’s story, Don Juan], regales his drinking companions with three stories, each telling of thwarted love: for the doll Olympia (this story also forms the basis of Delibes’ ballet, Coppelia), the singer, Antonia, and courtesan [cf: this previous post] Giuletta.  The stories themselves are loosely based on actual stories by Hoffmann, altered so that Hoffmann himself is a character.  Rather heavy-handedly, we are told that each of the love-objects represents a different aspect of the one woman: Stella.  By the end of the evening, when Stella arrives, Hoffmann is hopelessly drunk: Stella leaves with Hoffmann’s rival (a Mephistophelean character whose fictional-within-fictional counterpart crops up in each tale) leaving Hoffmann to his muse and his art.

It’s a travesty of the real E.T.A. Hoffmann, but that’s neither here nor there: this is an entertainment rather than a serious drama.

I shan’t write a review: you can read one by the SMH’s Peter McCallum here. I am mostly in agreement with it, except possibly when McCallum writes:

As Hoffmann, Rosario La Spina tamed his stentorian tenor voice to grapple with the sophisticated needs of melodic shape, achieving new-found lyricism in the duets with Antonia in Act III and in the final trio.

It is probably because we sit in the front row that D and I are not so crazy about Rosario La Spina. He is a very solidly-built young man with a very big voice (for which, if you were further back, you would be more grateful) but we both wish his singing could become more refined. He is still more of a singer than a musician: in the third act, both he and John Wegner (as Dr Miracle) had to mime on the violin: Wegner’s miming was much more convincing, which confirmed our prejudices. Not that, read attentively, McCallum’s view is so much different.

On the way to the Opera House, we walked through crowds of pink-clad participants in the Dove Pink Star Walk, a fundraiser for the National Breast Cancer Foundation which started from the Botanic Gardens. They were gone by the time we emerged after the performance.

The other unusual phenomenon we witnessed was that the city’s buildings were encrusted with bogong moths, clustering together in almost every conceivable crevice. These have been numerous in Sydney this week, apparently blown east from their annual migration south to the Australian Alps by the week’s westerly winds. Huddled together in their thousands and blown so far off course, they will, I suppose, all just die here over the next few days. The pavements were thick with them and we heard them cracking beneath the tyres of parking, passing and leaving cars. It’s not quite as consoling a vision of death or destiny as A.D.Hope’s dying bird.

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