Erato’s release of this 2013 PRODUCTION of Offenbach’s "Les contes d’Hoffmann" from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Laurent Pelly’s staging is something of a landmark. It is the first commercial video release to be based on the now extensively revised Michael Kaye edition since 1993, when the Opéra de Lyon’s adaptation (“…Des contes d’Hoffmann”) was issued on VHS and laser disc (now out of print, though used copies are available). However, the Lyon version from the early 90’s was clearly not representative of the edition, because most of the rediscovered music that makes this edition so important was cut, various numbers were moved around by the stage director and his controversial dramaturg, and a great deal of license was taken with the text.
While there are still several textual problems and some disappointing omissions in the performing version devised by Pelly and his equally faulty dramaturg, most people who watch the video of this production will be hearing a lot of authentic music that Offenbach composed for this opera, which may be unfamiliar to them. That, in turn, provides a much better sense of what Offenbach and his librettist, Jules Barbier, achieved. All in all, this video documents a fine performance.
Some of unfamiliar passages are rarities or first recordings, consisting of several early versions of arias rejected by Offenbach and later replaced by the more familiar definitive versions. It is a great treat hearing them so well sung here, notably: the first version of a radiantly beautiful romance ("‘ rÍve de joie") and a comic aria ("Voyez-la sous son evantail") for Nicklausse in the Olympia act, both masterfully sung by mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier. Later in the opera, instead of performing Offenbach’s definitive “Tourne, tourne miroir” or the apocryphal “Scintille diamant”, Pelly chose to have Dapertutto sing Offenbach’s very first version of that aria ("Répands tes feux dans l’air") to attract Giulietta, deftly sung by Laurent Naouri.
Most importantly, viewers of this DVD will be able to see the Giulietta act, albeit incomplete here, in a version that somewhat follows the original scenario penned by Offenbach and Barbier. One wonders why they didn’t just perform all of it and why they omitted Giulietta’s great coloratura seduction aria (“L’amour, lui dit la belle, vos yeux était fermées”). Dramaturg Agathe Mélinand’s pompous claim to having re-written the Giulietta Act for this production is very bogus. All she did was re-phrase some of the spoken dialogue and make very nasty unwelcome cuts!
Having said that, a major reason for owning this DVD is that it includes most of Offenbach’s original final scene of the Giulietta act, which is altogether different from the rather feeble, anti-climactic traditional version of the opera. But again, Pelly’s deconstruction is problematic, inexplicably changing Barbier’s lyrics and altering the denouement (all stemming from the first time he did this production in Lausanne). Nevertheless, most of the music is there and the dramatic punch it provides is as visceral as it was when Offenbach penned it shortly before he died. It is dark, disturbing, and brilliant ,and deserves to be heard—preferably, in a less adulterated form. Uncut, the final scene is only slightly more than 6 minutes. Why couldn’t they have respected what we now know Offenbach actually wrote and do all of it?
Despite these problems, Pelly’s directing is precise and vibrant, bringing with it some extremely original good ideas deserving of praise and admiration. Opting for a rather minimalist approach, Pelly manages to accomplish, through light and shadow (how appropriate for the Giulietta act!) something akin to German expressionist cinema. The feeling is real and appropriate for a work that is just beginning to be taken seriously as a much more coherent and meaningful "Tales of Hoffmann" than the opera our parents or grandparents would have known.
Michael Spyres’ Hoffmann is just what that character needs to be: vulnerable, desperate, and sympathetic. Michèle Losier turns the dual role of La Muse and Nicklausse into a tour-de-force, so necessary now that we understand the importance of these characters as Offenbach conceived them. Kathleen Kim has all the coloratura technique to bring off Olympia (and a flying Olympia at that), but Tatiana Pavlovskaya’s voice is far too dark for Giulietta. Often erroneously cast as a mezzo-soprano, Offenbach’s original score calls for a Giulietta who is also a coloratura soprano (not surprising, considering that all four of the heroine roles were intended to be sung by the same artist, the versatile Adèle Isaac).
The star of the show is, of course, Natalie Dessay who doesn’t disappoint. Cast as Antonia rather than her usual Olympia (and much anticipated Giulietta), one can get a sense of what it would have been like had Dessay been able to sing all of the heroines. She could have done it handily ten years ago, but, alas, it is now too late. Her husband, Laurent Naouri, is magnificently devilish as the four villains and seems to relish these roles. It’s really music he was born to sing, and, in my opinion, he does so to perfection.
In and of itself, this is a brilliant performance of the opera and can be highly recommended on its own merits. So if you love this opera, do yourself a favor and buy this set; despite its flaws, it is well worth having.