Things that come in threes: Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Semperoper, Dresden

Offenbach – Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann – Eric Cutler
Olympia – Tuuli Takala
Antonia – Sarah-Jane Brandon
Giulietta – Measha Brueggergosman
Nicklausse/La Muse – Christina Bock
Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pittichinaccio – Aaron Pegram
Le conseiller Lindorf/Coppélius/Le docteur Miracle/Dapertutto – Peter Rose
Spalanzani – Tom Martinsen
Crespel – Tilmann R
önnebeck
La voix de la tombe – Christa Mayer
Nathanaël – Simeon Esper
Hermann – Bernhard Hansky
Luther – Tilmann R
önnebeck
Schlémil – Bernhard Hansky

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden / Frédéric Chaslin
Stage director – Johannes Erath

Semperoper, Dresden, Germany.  Saturday, January 7th, 2017.

Tonight’s Contes d’Hoffmann marked my first visit to the stunning city of Dresden and the beautiful Semperoper.  What a magnificent house this is, visually beguiling and acoustically extremely grateful.  The city itself is a jewel, with fabulous baroque architecture offering a feast for the eyes.  Attending a show at the Semperoper feels like a real privilege, not just because of the beauty of the surroundings, but also because of the extremely high quality of the house forces and the excellent production values on display tonight.

The ornate architecture of the theatre played a leading role in Johannes Erath’s staging.  This was a production inspired as much by the space as by the plot.  As the curtain rose, we saw an image of the theatre reflected back at us, gradually populated by human figures.  Later, we saw video of Antonia walking around the corridors of the house and she suddenly appeared behind us, singing from the royal box.  Erath used the space around the stage almost as much as on it, with characters appearing in the boxes at the side of the stage and Nicklausse’ first entry happening at the front of the Parkett.  This certainly helped in bringing the action close to the audience although I’m sure it must have affected sightlines for a number of audience members.

Peter Rose, Eric Cutler, Christina Bock, Measha Brueggergosman, Bernhard Hansky, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Tuuli Takala, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Peter Rose, Eric Cutler, Christina Bock, Measha Brueggergosman, Bernhard Hansky, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Tuuli Takala, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Erath’s staging was very much a reflection on Hoffmann’s loneliness and complicated personality.  He, the villains and Nicklausse were dressed for much of the evening in the same clothes.  If we take as our starting point the three ladies (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) being the same person, Stella, in three aspects of her life (‘Stella, sous les trois aspects de sa vie: jeune fille, artiste et courtisane’ as Nicklausse sings in the epilogue), then the idea of Hoffmann being an amalgam of the villians, Nicklausse and Hoffmann himself is actually quite a pertinent one.  This certainly points to Hoffmann’s self-destructive, addictive nature and offers an interesting and potentially convincing reading of the text.  Yet, I’m not quite convinced Erath pulls it off.  The main reason for this is that he clutters the narrative with so much extraneous detail with the outcome that one spends much of the time asking why things are happening.  For example, in the Olympia act we see table tennis balls fall from the sky, later, the orchestra is raised on a hydraulic platform only to descend shortly afterwards.  In the Olympia act the chorus is made to act as blind people while singing about her visual assets (‘voyez comme elle est mise’).  In a way, it seems that Erath is unwilling to trust his singing-actors to drive the narrative and feels it necessary to add additional visual detail to every scene.

Eric Cutler, Christa Mayer, Measha Brueggergosman, Christina Bock, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Tuuli Takala. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Eric Cutler, Christa Mayer, Measha Brueggergosman, Christina Bock, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Tuuli Takala. Photo: © Jochen Quast

One element I found intriguing was the way that Erath split the stage into three levels, reinforcing the significance of the trio of the ladies and Hoffmann, Nicklausse, and the villains.  At the side of the stage was what looked like three morgue drawers in which appeared to be stored the bodies of the ladies and of Hoffmann himself later on.  The three sections were at times split with curtains with images of walls painted on them allowing us as spectators to see the inner world of the characters.

Eric Cutler, Christina Bock, Aaron Pegram, Tom Martinsen, Tuuli Takala, Peter Rose, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Eric Cutler, Christina Bock, Aaron Pegram, Tom Martinsen, Tuuli Takala, Peter Rose, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Musically, tonight really had a lot to offer.  Eric Cutler was a thrilling Hoffmann.  His diction was very good and he really did caress the language as he sang.  The voice is bright and open and he found some exciting reserves of power even at the end of a very long evening.  Tonight Cutler very much took us on a journey – from a Kleinzach song that sounded like a man tortured by his nightmares, to the romantic dreamer of ‘ah! Vivre deux’ – his was very much a complete performance.  Not only did Cutler give us some exciting high notes but he was also able to pull the tone right down to a thread without compromising the integrity of the sound.

Peter Rose, Eric Cutler, Christina Bock, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor, Aaron Pegram, Tom Martinsen. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Peter Rose, Eric Cutler, Christina Bock, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor, Aaron Pegram, Tom Martinsen. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Peter Rose was absolutely gripping as the villains.  Having heard him sing in impeccable Viennese as Ochs, I was delighted by his outstanding French tonight.  His diction really is absolutely exceptional.  He was a nicely flamboyant presence on stage and sang with rock solid tone throughout.  There’s something most gratifying in his artistry – one can see the years of work that have gone into producing a voice that’s absolutely even from top to bottom.  His ‘scintille, diamant’ showed him at his best – no issues with the tessitura and a very good legato.  With the big, full bottom Rose has the ideal voice for the roles.

Christina Bock, Eric Cutler. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Christina Bock, Eric Cutler. Photo: © Jochen Quast

The ladies were also very good.  Tuuli Takala is a very exciting find.  Her Olympia was sensational.  A full sound with an attractive creamy duskiness and good height, she also has a good trill.  She added some beguiling embellishments to her big number that really made a positive difference to the line.  It’s been a while since I heard Measha Brueggergosman sing opera and she was on fabulous form tonight.  Her plush, velvety soprano with that captivating, almost soulfully smoky bottom are an ideal match for the role of Giulietta.  It’s such a distinctive, warming, seductive sound.  It goes without saying that this Fredericton, NB soprano sings in impeccable French but what she also demonstrated was what a charismatic stage presence she has, impressive use of vocal colour and a genuine trill.  Sarah-Jane Brandon sang Antonia on a silky thread of sound.  Her aria was so deeply felt and sung in an elegant line.  The top takes on a touch of metal at full volume which led me to wonder if the role is slightly large for her.  She is also a charismatic actress.  Christina Bock sang with apologies for a cold and her full, rich mezzo is certainly an attractive instrument.  Her diction does need some work though, words were indistinct for most of the evening.  I did however wonder if it was perhaps as a result of her focusing on the line rather than the words due to her indisposition.

Eric Cutler, Tuuli Takala. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Eric Cutler, Tuuli Takala. Photo: © Jochen Quast

The remainder of the cast reflected the very high standards of the house.  Aaron Pegram had real personality as the servants, singing in a healthy tenor with good French and a witty stage presence.  I was also impressed by Tilmann Rönnebeck’s Crespel, sung in a handsome full-bodied bass.  The house chorus was exceptional, easily one of the finest opera choruses I’ve heard based on tonight’s evidence.  The blend was excellent – no unattractive war of vibratos here – and they sang with exhilarating theatre-filling amplitude.  There was one slight passage of slack ensemble at the start when they were at the back of the stage but otherwise ensemble was excellent.  The orchestra had some very raw string tone towards the end of the Olympia act and there were a few other moments where there were some tuning issues.  That said, the solo clarinet played beautifully and the brass were excellent all night.  Frédéric Chaslin’s conducting I found interesting.  At its best it was unobtrusive, allowing the singers through and allowing the action to proceed.  At times, however I felt he let the energy sag too much – in the Miracle/Antonia duet for example – and it felt that it needed pushing ahead a little more.

What struck me tonight was also the relative youthfulness of the audience who gave the performance such an enthusiastic reception.  This is a jewel of a theatre and the quality of the performance is exceptionally high.  Certainly tonight’s Hoffmann was musically and theatrically in a different league to the recent Royal Opera production.  The solo singing was never less than very good and in most cases much more than that.  If the production didn’t quite work for me, it was certainly not for a lack of intelligence or for a lack of a cogent reading of the text – it simply tried to do too much and in doing so, lost the impact of what I felt it was trying to say.  That said, as the first opera of 2017 one couldn’t ask for better.

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