Night at the Museum: Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Royal Opera House

Offenbach – Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann – Vittorio Grigòlo
Olympia – Sofia Fomina
Antonia – Sonya Yoncheva
Giulietta – Christine Rice
Nicklausse/La Muse – Kate Lindsey
Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pittichinaccio – Vincent Ordonneau
Le conseiller Lindorf/Coppélius/Le docteur Miracle/Dapertutto – Thomas Hampson
Spalanzani – Christophe Mortagne
Crespel – Eric Halfvarson
La voix de la tombe – Catherine Carby
Nathanaël – David Junghoon Kim
Hermann – Charles Rice
Luther – Jeremy White
Schlémil – Yuriy Yurchuk

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Evelino Pidò
Stage director – John Schlesinger

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Monday, November 7th, 2016

Tonight’s performance of Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Royal Opera House was a revival of John Schlesinger’s 1980 production.  I was surprised to find that it dates from 1980 because it looks more like dating from 1880.  Incredible to think that in a theatre as technologically advanced as the Royal Opera House it still requires lengthy scene changes for each act, making an already long evening feel even longer.  Part of the blame has to be laid at the feet of tonight’s conductor, Evelino Pidò, whose pedestrian amble through the score lacked any sense of verve, vigour or even life.  Rhythms were heavy, tempi laborious and he really did manage to suck the energy out of this vivacious score.  Schlesinger’s production was big on heavy fake drapes and there were a few instances of the set not doing what it was supposed to.  I’m sure the boors who come along to boo every new production at the Royal Opera loved it but after Kosky’s and Bieito’s insightful productions in Berlin and Oslo respectively, the staging – combined with the conducting – sadly felt very tired.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann at the Royal Opera House © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Royal Opera House © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
There was much that was good in the singing.  I admit to having had some infuriating evenings in Vittorio Grigòlo’s company but there’s something about the French repertoire that brings a sense of discipline seemingly lacking when he sings in Italian.  Grigòlo is fluently bilingual in Italian and French and it shows in the way he caressed the text in the most wonderful way.  The voice perhaps lacks a wide range of tone colours, but the way he used the dynamics to shade the tone was masterful.  His is a compact, almost narrow, tenor but used in the way that he did tonight gave a lot of pleasure indeed.

Sonya Yoncheva, Vittorio Grigòlo © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Sonya Yoncheva, Vittorio Grigòlo © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Of the ladies, I found Christine Rice’s Giulietta the most satisfyingly sung in a warm, velvety mezzo with an alluring richness.  She was fearless with the tessitura although the top did lose a little in quality.  Sofia Fomina’s Olympia sounded like she was still working the role into the voice or perhaps suffering from first night nerves.  She was a highly engaging actress but the voice sounded cloudy and unsure of pitching.  She definitely had all the notes though.  It was good to hear Sonya Yoncheva back in what is arguably her natural fach and she gave us a lyrical, luxurious and deeply-felt Antonia.  Those doubts I had about register integration with her Norma are still there and the higher, declamatory writing sounded pushed.  Kate Lindsey’s excellent French diction gave much pleasure but Nicklausse is a big sing and the voice sounded small and perhaps overparted.  Her sappy mezzo is a delight to hear and I hope I get to hear her sing the role in a smaller house.

Christine Rice, Thomas Hampson © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Christine Rice, Thomas Hampson © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Thomas Hampson also sang with his customary attention to the text but the roles lie low for him and his baritone now sounds grey and colourless.  One was constantly aware of the technical adjustments being made to get through the role.  The remainder of the cast was decent – Vincent Ordonneau’s peppery tenor and pointed diction was terrific and Catherine Carby was luxury casting as Antonia’s mother.  The chorus, under their new director William Spaulding, has already made big improvements to the quality of ensemble and discipline of sound.  One can hear the work that has gone into creating better blend within voice parts and crisper ensemble, exemplified by some impressively unanimous final consonants.  If there was still one overly vibrating soprano this was a big improvement on their previous form.  The orchestra’s strings alas, were still raw of tuning but the remainder of the band played decently enough.

Kate Lindsey © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Kate Lindsey © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
There was a lot that was good in tonight’s Hoffmann but also a lot that didn’t convince.  I only wish the cast had had a stronger production and stronger conducting to really allow them to really allow the work to live.  Certainly, the quality of the diction was good on the whole and some of the singing really was excellent.  It’s just that the evening didn’t really take off in the way that it should have.  Still, I’m glad I got to hear Grigòlo who proved that, when he reins in his excesses, he is actually a fine singer.

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