A World of Fantasy: Les Contes d’Hoffmann from the Opera Wrocławska

Offenbach – Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann – Charles Castronovo
Olympia – Maria Rozynek-Banaszak
Antonia – Ekaterina Siurina
Giulietta – Eliza Kruszczyńska
Nicklausse/La Muse – Aleksandra Opała
Andrès/Cochenille – Piotr Bunzler
Le conseiller Lindorf/Coppélius/Le docteur Miracle/Dapertutto – Jerzy Butryn
Pittichinaccio – Edward Kulczyk
Spalanzani/Frantz – Aleksander Zuchowicz
Crespel – Jakub Michalski
La voix de la tombe – Barbara Bagińska
Nathanaël – Jędrzej Tomczyk
Hermann – Andrzej Zborowski
Luther – Maciej Krzysztyniak
Schlémil – Łukasz Rosiak
Stella – Hanna Sosnowska

Chór i Orkiestra Opery Wrocławskiej / Bassem Akiki.
Stage director – Waldemar Zawodziński.  Video director – Tomasz Ciesielski.

Opera Wrocławska, Wrocław, Poland.  Saturday, January 16th, 2021.  Streamed via Opera Wrocławska’s website

With the vast majority of theatres closed currently, the enterprising Opera Wrocławska took the opportunity to present Waldemar Zawodziński’s 2009 staging of Les Contes d’Hoffmann on its website, filmed, as live, in its beautiful jewel of a theatre without an audience.  The performance is available to stream for a very small fee of PLN 20 (around EUR 4,40 / CAD 6,80).  An additional attraction of the performance was the presence of Charles Castronovo making his stage debut as Hoffmann, after having debuted the role in concert in Baden-Baden back in 2018.  The house assembled the remainder of the cast from its own ensemble, with the exception of Ekaterina Siurina, equally making her debut as Antonia, and Jerzy Butryn as the villains.  The house’s music director, Bassem Akiki, conducted.  The streaming also included intermission interviews conducted by the house’s artistic director, Mariusz Kwiecień, with Castronovo and Siurina, along with views of the artists preparing for the following acts.

Photo ©: Marek Grotowski 2018

In line with the current sanitary situation, the orchestra expanded out of the pit and took over the entirety of the floor of the orchestra section.  Otherwise, the staging was very much as one would expect.  Characters fully engaged with each other physically in a very busy staging.  Indeed, Zawodziński gives us quite the opulent setting for the work.  It certainly looked very impressive, expanding from a murky tavern, to an Antonia act that featured spectral dark figures and a piano that exuded smoke, to a Giulietta act that featured oversized gondolas and a polysexual orgy.  There was a striking moment at the end of the Olympia act when the stage rose to show a row of dolls in enormous glass jars, reinforcing the fact that Olympia was very much one among many.  This was a staging grounded in fantasy, yet that was also founded in a clarity of storytelling that made for the action to unfold unobtrusively with characters who clearly engaged with each other.  Sadly, the epilogue was cut, so we lost out on that glorious closing ensemble.

While the stage action was easy to follow, unfortunately diction wasn’t quite as clear it could have been, although as usual Castronovo’s French diction gave much pleasure.  His handsome tenor was in very good shape and the ardour in the tone was well matched to the Hoffmann of the Olympia act, pouring out ‘ah! Vivre deux’ with an easy, dreamy legato.  His was a full voiced, Hoffmann, fearless in attack, yet at the same time also willing and able to pull back the tone to a thread of sound while never losing the core.  Even in the Giulietta act, the tessitura soaring ever higher after a very long evening, he had room to spare, the top always full and open.  He was also a highly energetic stage presence, incarnating all the facets of his character’s journey, from broken drunk at the start and end, to desperate lover, to murderer.  An impressive assumption and I look forward to seeing him grow even further into the role with time.

Photo ©: J.K. Żurek/Opera Wrocławska

Maria Rozynek-Banaszak gave us an enchantingly sung Olympia.  Her soprano is bright and scintillating with some very easy acuti.  She added some highly musical and artful embellishments to her song, displaying a natural and innate musicality.  Siurina gave us an extrovert Antonia, her soprano offering a silky legato and silvery tone.  She used an intelligent range of tone colours, although I did long for her to do more with the words, to use the sounds of the language to draw out meaning.  Her impassioned vocalism and compelling physicality did inspire admiration, however.  Eliza Kruszczyńska worked it across the stage quite magnificently as Giulietta.  Her soprano was brighter in tone than we often hear in this role and blended nicely with Aleksandra Opała’s Nicklausse in their celebrated barcarolle.  Opała was an equally energetic stage presence and sang her music in an agreeably sunny, grapefruit-toned mezzo.

Butryn brought a very handsome bass to his roles.  This is a notable instrument without a doubt.  Dark and inky in tone, he coped with the differing tessitura of each role with impressive ease.  It’s a sound of complex depth and certainly a voice I would like to hear again.  Unfortunately, for me the impact of his singing was blunted by the lack of clarity in his French diction, but he is an engaging actor.  The remaining roles were effectively taken by the members of the house’s ensemble.  The house chorus, prepared by Anna Grabowska-Borys, sang with agreeable blend and tight ensemble.

Photo ©: Marek Grotowski 2018

Akiki led a reading that felt ideally paced.  He ratcheted up the tension in just the way it needed to in the Antonia act, while the Olympia act had the necessary lightness and swiftness of attack.  He also allowed the Giulietta act to soar expansively and throughout his tempi felt absolutely right.  He obtained playing of notable quality from his orchestra, the violins navigated the treacherous high writing of the Olympia act with accuracy and the brass were well behaved all night.  Certainly a conductor to watch.

This Hoffmann was definitely an agreeable way to pass an afternoon.  We were given a staging that was opulent and visually sumptuous yet also told the story with impeccable visual clarity and was populated by believable characters – even if the text wasn’t always clear from a majority of the cast.  We were given a compelling and thrillingly sung account of the title role in impeccable French, and similarly well-sung and genuine accounts of the roles of his three ladies.  In Butryn’s villians we were also introduced to a major voice, although again with a caveat with regards to the diction.  With the camerawork that captured the staging with impressive detail, interesting intermission features, and bilingual Polish and English subtitles, this was a fine account of this jewel of a house and whets the appetite for more.

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