Dramatically Vital with Original Sound: Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden

Offenbach – Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann – Charles Castronovo
Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella – Olga Peretyatko
Nicklausse/La Muse – Aude Extrémo
Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pittichinaccio – Mathias Vidal
Le conseiller Lindorf/Coppélius/Le docteur Miracle/Dapertutto – Luca Pisaroni
Spalanzani/Nathanaël – Christophe Mortagne
Crespel/Luther – Jean-Vincent Blot
La voix de la tombe – Aurélia Legay
Hermann/Schlémil – Marc Mauillon

Philharmonia Chor Wien, Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski.
Concert performance.

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Baden-Baden, Germany.  Sunday, November 25th, 2018.

The prospect of a period-instrument Contes d’Hoffmann is certainly an exciting one.  When led by Offenbach specialist, Marc Minkowski, with his Musiciens du Louvre joined by a very promising cast, this one-off concert performance was most certainly a hot ticket and looked destined to be a highlight of the season at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.  Tonight also marked several significant role debuts, with Charles Castronovo taking on the iconic title role for the first time, Luca Pisaroni as his nemeses, while Olga Peretyatko took on all of the ladies having debuted them in Monte Carlo earlier this year.

Photo: © Andrea Kremper

Indeed, it was billed as a semi-staging, but in fact we got more than that, with a mise-en-espace­ credited to Romain Gilbert.  There were some basic props – a chair, a table – and Olympia even used a magazine cover with Castronovo’s face on it, to demonstrate how she had been pre-programmed to go for him.  With singing-actors of the calibre of Mathias Vidal and Christophe Mortagne in supporting roles, we received genuinely vivid and vital performances.  Vidal’s servants were absolutely terrific.  He has such impeccable comic timing – including some really quite amusing stage business with the harp in the orchestra.  Costumes were also used to illustrate the different characters, with Peretyatko’s couture differentiating each of the ladies she performed.   It worked very well and made the evening feel so much more than a concert but instead a living, breathing theatrical experience.

Photo: © Andrea Kremper

Minkowski gave us what was a very full edition of the score.  We also had some opportunities to hear rarely-performed music.  Instead of ‘scintille diamant’, Dapertutto sang a lively number ‘répands tes feux dans l’air’, where the twisting lines were elegantly delivered by Pisaroni.  We got to hear ‘vois sous l’archet frémissant’ complete, as well as the haunting unaccompanied chorus ‘Oublie tes douleurs’ in the epilogue, so often cut.  On the whole it worked well and Minkowski led what was always a dramatically vital reading.  Indeed, the crackling tension he produced with his cast in the Antonia act was overwhelming, founded on a compelling rhythmic impetus, constantly pushing forward with inexorable tension.  He wasn’t afraid to let the band surge in a blaze of sound, filling the hall, but the use of the period instruments meant that the principals could always be heard over the surging textures.  He phrased the closing chorus with love and affection, even if the tempo felt somewhat on the slow side.  The Musiciens du Louvre played very well for him.  The room was quite warm so that could explain the few passing moments where the string intonation went slightly sour.  Those French winds were unmistakable and the brass was on good behaviour, apart from a couple of horn slips here and there.  The Viennese chorus sang with fresh, well-blended tone, although from my seat in the Parkett, the gentlemen sounded a little understaffed in the big drinking chorus.

Photo: © Andrea Kremper

Hoffmann is a beast of a role and tonight, Castronovo rose to the challenge.  That familiar warm and masculine tone always gives so much pleasure, particularly in a deliciously honeyed ‘ah! vivre deux’.  His Kleinzach song was wonderfully extrovert and throughout the evening he gave us such gloriously ardent full and open singing at the top of the voice.  It does, perhaps inevitably, sound like he’s still working the role into the voice.  The Giulietta act in particular, coming as it does at the end of a long evening, started to show some sings of tiredness in the tone.  As a first attempt at this summit of the repertoire, it was more than creditable and, as always, Castronovo’s French diction was excellent.

Photo: © Andrea Kremper

Pisaroni was utterly magnetic as the villains.  He really worked with text, his singing making as much impact through his verbal acuity, as with his masterful use of tone colour.  Right from his first entrance, he grabbed the stage and ran with it, spitting out the words ‘je suis vif’ with great glee.  He managed to fully fulfil the varying facets of the roles, finding danger, wit and elegance.  Most impressive.  His French was impeccable throughout.  Peretyatko took on the extremely challenging assignment of the ladies in Hoffmann’s life.  She has a most glamorous stage presence and is a very fine actress.  She’d clearly prepared the roles well and her diction was intelligible.  Her Olympia was sung with spirit, if not always complete accuracy, although she did pull out a brief and exciting high G and made a good attempt at a trill.  I’m not quite convinced Giulietta is an ideal fit as it requires a bit more weight in the middle.  Best was her Antonia, sung with genuine feeling, silky tone and admirable breath control.

Photo: © Andrea Kremper

Aude Extrémo brought her full and rich mezzo to Nicklausse and la Muse.  She’s also another highly engaging stage presence but surprisingly her diction wasn’t always especially clear, robbing her singing of its full impact, and the voice didn’t always quite sit on the note, with intonation having a tendency to droop.  There’s an exciting strident edge at the top, and the bottom is full and juicy.  Vidal was superb as the servants, his highly characterful, liquid tenor always sung off the text and he wasn’t afraid to sacrifice beauty of tone for comic effect.  Jean-Vincent Blot displayed a big, rounded bass of complex depth and resonance in his roles and Marc Mauillon’s slightly tart tenor made an impact in his.  Aurélia Legay’s vibrant mezzo rang out impressively from one of the side balconies as Antonia’s mother.

Photo: © Andrea Kremper

This was a highly satisfying performance in so many respects – the energy of the mise-en-espace, the warm glow of the period instruments, Minkowski’s highly dynamic conducting, as well as some highly charismatic and vivid performances.  In others, it felt something of a work in progress, as so often is the case for a one-off concert performance.  Castronovo’s warmly ardent singing, Peretyatko’s elegance, Vidal’s brilliant comic timing, and Pisaroni’s masterful villains were undoubted highlights of an evening that offered so much.  It was rapturously received by a capacity audience.

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  1. Thanks for an interesting review. About Dapertutto’s aria, I think that the aria that traditionally was sung by Coppelius (instead of the great trio with Nicklausse and Coppelius) is actually the original aria for Dapertutto.

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