Work in Progress

Offenbach – Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann – Evan Bowers

Olympia – Mari Eriksmoen

Antonia – Nina Gravrok

Giulietta – Randi Stene

Lindorf/Coppélius/le Dr Miracle/Dapertutto – Alex Esposito

Nicklausse/La Muse – Ingeborg Gillebo

Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz – Svein Erik Sagbråten

Hermann – Carsten Stabell

Nathanaël/Spalanzani – Thor Inge Falch

Luther/Crespel – Magne Fremmerlid

La voix de la tombe – Ingebjørg Kosmo

Norske Operakoret, Norske Operaorkestret / Stefan Blunier.

Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Den Norske Opera, Nasjonal Operaen, Oslo.  Thursday, December 12th, 2013.

It seems that every time I see a Calixto Bieito production, I mention that he is for me, the finest stage director out there today.  So many of his shows have been revelatory and have managed to portray the work in question in a completely new light.  It was surprising then to come across a staging that perhaps ultimately lacked cohesion.

For this performance, Bieito and the conductor Stefan Blunier settled on a pared-down edition that reduced the piece to its bare essentials.   This worked well in concentrating the action but there were a few elements that did not convince.  On a number of occasions the chorus was placed off-stage which resulted in serious balance issues.  This was particularly so in the final scene which seemed particularly disjointed in that all I could hear was the orchestra with a distant chorus.  In the Olympia scene the chorus was barely audible.  Diction was also a problem.  I am fully aware that French is an almost impossible language to get right but at the same time understandable diction makes a real difference in making the drama come to life.  I also found Blunier’s conducting somewhat four-sqaure and heavy – I yearned for some lightness and swing – although he was well-served by the excellent orchestra.

Despite all of this, I left the theatre feeling the way only a Bieito production can make me feel.  Like he had reached my emotional core.  For Bieito, Hoffmann is an alcoholic, standing at the edge of the abyss, who seems to bring misfortune to all of the women he comes into contact with.  The staging was a technical tour de force, making full use of the Operaen’s superb facilities.  The Olympia act was set in a gaudy neon environment with Olympia given pills rather than being wound up.  This contrasted with the Antonia act was which staged in a sparse bourgeois drawing room, Antonia dressed in Victorian black with Hoffmann’s scruffy hoody and jeans contrasting with her surroundings.  The Giulietta act was seemingly held in a brothel, the beauty of the barcarolle contrasting with the ugliness of the events on the stage.  Stella was revealed to be Hoffmann’s wife, she and her children terrified of his alcoholic state.  The comforting closing theme contrasted with Hoffmann alone and broken on stage.

The Olympia act consisted of dolls descending from the flies, the Antonia act was set on a stage inside the stage that drifted along the void underneath the main stage.  The Giulietta act was set within a metal structure that was raised from underneath the stage.

The singing on the whole was of a good quality and in many cases much more than that.  Alex Esposito was the main draw casting-wise for me in this show and he did not disappoint.  He was vocally outstanding, dramatically even more so.  His rich, red-wine bass-baritone had the full measure of all four villains and his sound was full and easy throughout the range.  He was an incredibly engaging actor, fully inhabiting each of his characters and giving each one a clear personality.  He also managed to look very good in a mini jupe.  Like many Italian singers he had a tendency to privilege the line over the words but he certainly has the ability to spin a beautiful line. I look forward to seeing more of him soon.

Evan Bowers as Hoffmann was new to me although I was familiar with the name.  He sang heroically hitting his top notes with ease.  He was also an affecting actor, clearly completely broken at the end.  I just wish that he had made more of the words.  Of the ladies, Mari Eriksmoen was a sensational Olympia.  The voice isn’t the biggest but she seems to have a fabulous top and a tone redolent of Beverly Sills combined with excellent French.  Nina Gravrok is also very interesting new talent as Antonia.  She sang with great richness and generosity and also in impeccable French.  The top of the voice sounded slightly disconnected from the middle but she is a very interesting singer and one I would like to hear again.  Randi Stene didn’t seem to have much to do in this production as Giulietta but what she did do, she did well and her acting was gripping.  Ingeborg Gillebo’s Muse was well-sung, nicely phrased and she was also a convincing actress.

Ultimately, tonight – much like the opera itself – felt to me like a work in progress.  It’s a show that has a lot of potential and looks absolutely stunning but there are a few things – such as the positioning of the chorus – that don’t quite work.  At the same time, it showed all the hallmarks of Bieito’s genius, was more than decently sung and introduced me to some very interesting new talent.  The Oslo house is also a stunning theatre from its beautiful auditorium, to the striking exterior and its unbeatable location.  I am definitely more than happy that I made the journey to see it.

Svein Erik Sagbråten; Mari Eriksmoen; Thor Inge Falck
Photo: © Erik Berg

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