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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Avoid this recording if you are seeking a loved and familiar version-the performing edition used is only for the curious., 13 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: Offenbach : Les Contes D'Hoffmann (Audio CD)
It is a measure of how much this idiosyncratic work has captured the imagination that as much effort has been expended on various performing editions as with Bruckner’s 3rd and 8th Symphonies-and with as much controversy.
A performance or recording of this work has always been a lottery-the music included, the casting (one soprano or three), order of acts, changes in plot, orchestration and inclusion of purely musical numbers vary widely and always have. The problem is not that Offenbach did not complete the work, though a fair amount was either only part or un-orchestrated before his death-he in fact completed enough material to have 4 separate versions at least, but none of it was co-ordinated and we have no idea what the final version would have been. We can be sure that had he lived, Offenbach would have adapted the work from performance to performance as he did with his other stage works.
We can be sure of certain constants-the work was originally conceived and composition began as a “Grand Opera” with no spoken dialogue, a very dark plot and a Baritone cast as Hoffmann.
Midway through composition, the Opera Company involved went bust, and the work was immediately adopted by the Opera Comique in Paris-this meant a lighter plot, spoken dialogue and Hoffmann cast as a tenor for their star artist of the day!

All of this material-in several versions and sketches- survived and continues to be unearthed even today.
The work most of us know and love is a confection of music all composed by Offenbach, though not necessarily for this particular work, adapted, orchestrated and edited by many hands, most notably Ernest Guiraud and has evolved into what we think of as the “Choudens” Edition.

In 1976 the musicologist Fritz Oeser produced an expanded revised version which reinstated most the music for Muse/Nicklausse omitted in the Choudens, reconstructed the prologue and postlude to great effect, but sensibly kept all the “unauthentic” but popular numbers of the Choudens version, even though many lost repeats and purely orchestral renditions. For me this is THE preferred version and can be heard to great effect in the live Orfeo recording of the 1981 Salzburg Production under James Levine and which I have reviewed.
This version has been adopted by many leading houses, including Vienna and La Scala Milan.

Scholarly research continued until in 1999 a new totally revised version based entirely on material incontrovertibly by Offenbach was revealed by American Scholar Michael Kaye, the version that is presented here based on performances in Lyon, and subsequently adopted in Hamburg.

Kaye admits that it is not an “authentic version”, but is a performing version based on material certainly by Offenbach, in his orchestrations wherever possible, and which Kaye believes were intend for the final version. There are some radical plot changes too, particularly in the Giulietta Act, here dubbed Act 3 of 5 Act work, all options considered by Offenbach.
I will end this homily by recounting that in 2006, James Levine planned a spectacular new production at the Met, and entered into a series of meetings and consultations with Michael Kaye and studying his revised score much to the approval of the musical “intelligentsia.”
Finally, Maestro Levine announced that he would be conducting-the Choudens version with most of the Oeser additions but keeping all the repeats and the orchestral playing of Olympia’s Waltz and the Barcarolle Intermezzo!!!
A scandalised musical press demanded to know how he could be so cavalier, to which Maestro Levine replied “Quite simply, I like the music much better and so do my paying audience.”

That sums up entirely my reaction to this set-it has its moments-there are about 3 of them-but beyond that it turns this glorious work into a dull, tiresome slog.

Certainly the version used, no matter how close to Offenbach’s intentions contributes to the lack of enthusiasm, but Nagano’s unidiomatic conducting, the dull recording of the orchestra in an unflattering acoustic and the lack of involvement of many of the cast are all major factors too.

There are certainly some surprises-the big Sextet in “Act 3” was generally believed to be by that prolific composer “Anonymous”, but Kaye believes it to be echt-Offenbach and it is included, though much earlier in this interminable Act as it is here performed. Lovers of the Barcarolle theme will be delighted-itself of course conscripted by Offenbach from his early work “The Rhine Fairies”-as it is repeated many times and in many guises to the extent that it outstays its welcome considerably.

There is of course no version at all of “Scintille Diamant”, certainly by Offenbach but from another work.
In fact, if the Muse was the big casualty in the Choudens version, then it is the 3 villains who suffer excision in this version, though Lindorf gets an expanded role.

There is far too much music included that is effectively orchestrated recitative, and which one feels sure that Offenbach, ever a man of the theatre, would have edited severely and that fact that it is “genuine” does not make it enjoyable.

The cast is an excellent one overall, with Natalie Dessay at her very best as Olympia producing high notes from the stratosphere, Alagna is a fine ardent Hoffmann with idiomatic French and ringing tone, van Dam is still good in the somewhat stifled versions of roles he performed so well in earlier years, and Sumi Jo sings well in the revised Giulietta Act, which now scored for a coloratura soprano includes a fizzing demonstration aria which I could happily hear again. However, she sounds totally uninvolved in the part!

All of the acts vary from the established versions, and rarely to the benefit of the work. The extra music for Olympia and Hoffmann to her waltz theme is welcome, but that act is shorn of much is that is really enjoyable, as are the others.
The recording favours the voices, the orchestra sounds dry and dull, does not play particularly well, and Nagano, a conductor I generally admire, seems out of sympathy with this work as his interpretation varies from flaccid to nervous staccato rhythms where they shouldn’t be.

Of course, there are many passages to enjoy-but even more not to, and the familiar music that is omitted is sorely missed. Maestro Levine knows a thing or two!

Understandably, anyone as fascinated by this work as I am will want to explore this version, but most of the experience that results is academic rather than enjoyable.

Those looking a recording of Hoffmann that they know and love, or think they might, are steered towards the Orfeo Live Recording, for me best of all, and if applause etc. is too much to take, the Cambreling recording is excellent as is the Sutherland/Bonynge.
Those of an adventurous bent could try a fabulous recording in German-not as unidiomatic as you might think-he was after all Jakob Hoffmann from Köln in at that time Prussia, and his works were sung in German under his direction in Vienna-which can be found at bargain price on Electrola and features Jerusalem, Hannah Schwartz, Julia Varady, Norma Sharpe and Fischer-Dieskau.
Avoid (sadly), the Cluytens, Ozawa (ghastly), Tate (another “authentic” version even more dull than this one) and of course the one under review. The reissue packaging includes summaries of what are now designated the Five Acts, but there is no libretto and I surmise that there is precious little chance of obtaining one. Only for the incurably curious!
Stewart Crowe.
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Initial post: 14 Feb 2014 15:06:48 GMT
Ralph Moore says:
I completely agree with you regarding the questionable merits of this recording and with your recommendations.
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D. S. CROWE
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   

Location: UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 314