Those we have Loved: Les Contes d’Hoffmann at La Monnaie – De Munt

Offenbach – Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann – Eric Cutler
Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella – Patricia Petibon
Nicklausse/La Muse – Mich
èle Losier
Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pittichinaccio – Lo
ïc Félix
Le conseiller Lindorf/Coppélius/Le docteur Miracle/Dapertutto – Gábor Bretz
Spalanzani/Nathanaël – Fran
çois Piolino
Luther/Crespel – Willard White
La voix de la tombe – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Schlémil/Hermann – Yoann Dubruque
Wolfram – Alejandro Fonte
Wilhelm – Lee Byoungjin

Kooracademie van de Munt, Koor van de Munt, Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie / Alain Altinoglu.
Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski.

La Monnaie – De Munt, Brussels, Belgium.  Friday, December 20th, 2019.

In our troubled times, who are those who tell us fantastical stories and what happens to them after the stories are told?  In his new staging of Les Contes d’Hoffmann for De Munt – La Monnaie, Krzysztof Warlikowski posits that these are those who make movies – actors and those behind the scenes – and that life is considerably less glamorous once the camera stops and the cast goes off air, highlighting for us a universe populated by broken individuals suffering from addiction.  It makes for a fascinating starting point for what is a staging of remarkable intelligence and insight.  Of course, cinema has long been an interest of Warlikowski’s, with scenes or references from movies a consistent thread throughout his career.  In common with the Don Giovanni he produced here five years ago, he uses images of the cast on a screen above the set – in this case images of Patricia Petibon, incarnating all of Eric Cutler’s Hoffmann’s ladies, who in turn appears to be precisely the three women in one described by the libretto.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Warlikowski’s staging works so well because he manages to not only create a staging that is visibly fascinating, but he also transforms it to a recognizably contemporary setting and gets to the heart of the piece.  His Hoffmann is broken and obsessed at the beginning and at the end.  The evening opens with dialogue, in English, that appears to reference David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.  Hoffmann declares ‘I see things’, and indeed perhaps one of those things is a very feminine Nicklausse, a physical manifestation of La Muse.  Addiction is a constant presence and the villains are those who fuel the addiction – whether a bartender providing Hoffmann with alcohol, a drug dealer giving Antonia heroin, or a pornographer fuelling Giulietta’s life as an adult movie actress.  The power of creativity is ever present, in an Antonia act that sees her pouring her heart out and Hoffmann recording it.  I found Warlikowski and Petibon’s illustration of a woman who can’t help but give everything to her art, even if it results in her death, desperately moving.  Especially watching the joy of Cutler’s Hoffmann as he believes he recorded the ultimate take.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

In a way, this is what we as audience members expect when in the theatre – seeing performers go to the limits for us, giving all of their artistry, their training for the ultimate operatic thrill.  But where are the boundaries – where does the acting end, and the real person begin?  Warlikowski coaxes performances of such mesmerizing detail from his cast, bringing out the sadness as well as the joy.  The chorus, so important in this work, varies from being an observer to a participant – but isn’t this what we, as viewers, are also?  In doing so, Warlikowski gets to the core of the work and brings us an epilogue of immensely moving emotional power.  He stops the music, Petibon’s Stella gives an Oscar acceptance speech, as Betty Elms, to be interrupted by Hoffmann desperately asking to be given another chance.  The sight of a man so absolutely broken, a shadow of the proud professional he once was, accompanied by Michèle Losier’s Muse singing ‘des cendres de ton cœur réchauffe ton génie’ with such eloquence, was so incredibly moving.  The libretto states ‘On est grand par l’amour et plus grand par les pleurs’.  Suffering may be inherently part of the creative process, but if the results are as revelatory as this, then at least for us as viewers, it was worth it.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

A staging as insightful as this requires a similarly insightful cast, and the house had clearly cast this exceptionally well.  Diction throughout was very good, making the drama even more immediate.  Cutler gave us a career-defining performance in the title role of tremendous psychological insight.  He brought out so much detail in the text – whether a Klein-Zack of haunted desperation, shading the tone masterfully as he sang ‘ah! Sa figure était charmante’.  He made his ‘Ah! Vivre deux’ in the Olympia act less a honeyed seduction and more a desperate need to have this figure, whether woman or machine.  Cutler had room to spare in the Giulietta act, singing with ardent generosity, the voice pealing out with obsessive glee.  Both in his vocalism and his acting, Cutler gave unsparingly of himself to us.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Petibon was really quite something as the ladies.  Her Olympia was, quite frankly, off the scale demented – in a good way.  She pulled the vibrato from the tone, making it sound otherworldly, adding some daring variations to her aria.  Her Antonia was passionately sung, fuller of vibrato and generous of tone, while her Giulietta was both seductive and expressive.  Her ability to create very distinct vocal personalities was most impressive, as was her use of text and the way she made even her vocalises truly mean something – Antonia’s cry of pain was harrowing.  Yes, intonation was troublesome as she was consistently flat throughout the evening, but the insight of her performances, her total dedication, was such a wonderful antidote to the blandness we so often see on the lyric stage.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

The artistry evident in Losier’s use of text gave an enormous amount of pleasure.  She savoured the language, bringing out a world of colours through the text.  Her ripe, juicy mezzo is in fabulous shape, with a wonderfully full and rich bottom.  She sang her ‘vois sous l’archet frémissant’ with real eloquence and was a remarkably energetic stage presence.   Gábor Bretz sang the villains with warm, velvety tone.  He coped well with the varying demands of the tessitura of each role, even if Miracle required some slightly more careful negotiation.  The text was clear although he could sharpen up on some of the unstressed vowels, as these had a tendency to be too open.  The remaining cast was excellent.  Veteran Willard White, with stage presence to spare and still a considerable amount of voice, was a persuasive presence in his roles.  Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo was a big-voiced Antonia’s mother, filling the ensemble with plush mezzo warmth.  Loïc Félix was superb as the servants – bringing out so much wit in the text, his tenor easily-produced, as well as being such an engaging actor.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

The house orchestra and chorus were on fabulous form for Alain Altinoglu.  The chorus rich of tone, always well blended, with a special mention for the deliciously tart mezzos.  The band was excellent, producing such a range of instrumental colour – the strings digging deep, the clarinets full of personality, and the brass solid all night.  Altinoglu led an utterly convincing reading with tempi that felt completely natural for the most part.  I felt that perhaps the Olympia act was a little heavy in approach, lacking slightly in lightness, but he ratcheted up the tension masterfully in the Antonia act, which became unbearably gripping, thanks to his constant driving forward of the tempo and those mesmerizing performances from the cast.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

With this Hoffmann, Warlikowski gives us a musing on what art is, where art and life collide, and what happens afterwards to those who give us pleasure.  In the epilogue there were three dancers present, looking longingly at the camera, and it struck me that they too might be the next flavour of the week, stars to be promptly disposed of – or perhaps never make it at all.  But there was something deeper here.  This was the kind of evening that defines what opera is and always should be – not about ‘names’ sleepwalking through thirty-year-old productions, but instead an evening that had been cast intelligently, intensively rehearsed musically and dramatically, and provided an emotionally overwhelming experience from a cast who gave so much of themselves to us.  And for that we must surely be immensely grateful.

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