Offenbach – Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Hoffmann – Benjamin Bernheim
Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella – Olga Peretyatko
Nicklausse/La Muse – Angela Brower
Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pittichinaccio – Gideon Poppe
Le conseiller Lindorf/Coppélius/Le docteur Miracle/Dapertutto – Luca Pisaroni
Spalanzani – Jürgen Sacher
Nathanaël – Kang Dongwon
Luther/Crespel – Martin Summer
La voix de la tombe – Kristina Stanek
Schlémil/Hermann – Bernhard Hansky
Wolfram/ Wilhelm – Daniel Schliewa
Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Kent Nagano.
Stage director – Daniele Finzi Pasca
Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany. Friday, September 10th, 2021.
This new production of Les contes d’Hoffmann marked the first new staging of the 2021 – 22 season at the house on the Dammtor. For it, the house gave us the opportunity to see Benjamin Bernheim, one of the most highly regarded Francophone tenors, take on the title role for the first time in a staged production. He was joined by Olga Peretyatko as all of Hoffmann’s ladies and Luca Pisaroni as the villains, as they did in concert in Baden-Baden back in 2017.
Of course, even though a new staged production suggests a gradual return to normality, the fact remains that we are still in a time of plague and the Staatsoper had made some allowances for this. The most notable, is that audience capacity was limited and all guests were required to wear medical face masks at all times while in the house. The other, was that the chorus was split – half the chorus sang on stage, while the others sang from the boxes in a distanced manner. I imagine the reasoning for this would be to allow the house to continue to perform in the event of contamination within the stage chorus. Acoustically, it actually worked well, bathing the house in a warm glow of sound – particularly in the glorious closing epilogue.
The staging was confided to Daniele Finzi Pasca, a new name to me. The Swiss director has given the house a production that looks handsome and will be eminently revivable. What it doesn’t do is offer any particularly new insights, nor allow us the opportunity to reflect on the work. It’s a staging that very much skims the surface and relies on the strength of the protagonists to create drama and make it work. In Bernheim, Peretyatko, Pisaroni and Angela Brower’s Nicklausse/La Muse, he certainly had these; but there was a significant amount of standing and delivering throughout the evening – Hoffmann and Antonia addressed their declarations of love, for instance, while singing them at the audience. Finzi Pasca also had a pair of acrobats appear at various moments, whether incarnating a double of La Muse sailing over the scene, or Antonia’s mother appearing from the flies when she first sang of her. There was also a double of Hoffmann who would appear and sit with Nicklausse at the side of the stage when Hoffmann was engaging with his love interests. The presence of these acrobats was more distracting than illuminating, as they seemingly appeared whenever anything important was due to happen, drawing attention away from the principals as if Finizi Pasca didn’t trust his principals to drive the story forward. He does, however, give us some attractive stage pictures – the huge mirror that appeared in the Giulietta act, amplifying the stage was handsome to look at, but it also meant that it was perfectly possible to see Hoffmann’s reflection even though he’d apparently lost it.
Where this evening gave much pleasure was in the musical performances. As always, enjoyment was heightened by the fact that the text was extremely clear from a number of the principals. Not least from Bernheim, who filled his singing with meaning. This is a role that sits perfectly for his bright, high-lying tenor. What’s more, there was a sense that he could have kept going all night – where so many before have struggled in the Giulietta act, Bernheim revelled in the challenges, soaring ever higher in ecstatic glee. He even shaded the tone quite magically, pulling back yet always carrying through the house. Bernheim has both the romantic ardour and the ability to portray regret that the role requires – his physical incarnation of the drunk poet was remarkably convincing. If there was one thing in his singing that didn’t quite convince, it’s that the clarity of his diction betrayed the fact that so many final Rs in words were inaudible – amour sounded like ‘amou’ or ‘cœur’ like ‘queue’. This is something that I also picked up on in his Faust from Paris, France seen via streaming. Otherwise, tonight gave the exceptionally satisfying feeling of seeing a fine artist incarnate a role he was born to sing.
The same goes for Brower. She is one of those singers who I’ve always found to be technically competent, but not perhaps the most interesting interpreter. Her Nicklausse/La Muse showed her taking her artistry to a completely new level. Her diction was exceptionally clear and moreover she filled every single word with meaning, relishing the language and digging deep. Brower made the text live and, thanks to the clarity of her diction, had this listener hanging off every word. She sang her ‘vois sous l’archet frémissant’ with long lines and bright, sunny tone. Peretyatko sang Antonia similarly, with long lines and pearly tone, and her diction throughout was clear, helping to give her singing individuality. Giulietta doesn’t sit particularly comfortable for her soprano, but she negotiated the relatively awkward tessitura confidently, if perhaps without a sense that the registers were fully integrated. Her Olympia was sung with personality, but here the passagework wasn’t always even, and I’m not quite convinced she’s the owner of a genuine trill. Peretyatko certainly inspired admiration for taking on this exceptionally challenging assignment and for the intelligibility of the text.
Pisaroni brought stage presence to spare to his various roles. His inky bass-baritone is exceptionally handsome in the middle and the bottom fills out with resonant warmth. The top however tonight sounded somewhat grainy and lacking in resonance. Interestingly, his spoken French was highly idiomatic, but his sung French was rather too open, meaning that the impact of his singing was muted slightly. Nevertheless, his was a highly watchable and captivating account of his roles. The remaining cast represented the high standards expected at this address. Gideon Poppe incarnated the servants with wit, unstinting physicality and a bright, well-focused tenor. While Kristina Stamek sang the Voix de la tombe with a plush, rounded mezzo with good resonance.
Given how they were scattered around the auditorium, the chorus sang with impressive unanimity of ensemble and stage/pit coordination was accurate all night. Kent Nagano led a reading that took a little while to settle. Initially, his approach sounded tentative and inhibited, the joyfulness of ‘jusqu’au matin remplis, rempis mon verre’ sounding muted. It was after Bernheim entered with his ‘Kleinzack’ that the performance began to take wing, Nagano then energizing his forces, particularly in an Antonia act that pushed forward with inexorable tension. The orchestra was on good form – particularly the elegant solo horn – although the violins were a little stretched in the high-lying rapid figures of the Olympia act.
On the whole, this was an evening that gave an enormous amount of pleasure thanks to the clarity of the diction, the excellent standard of the singing, and the captivating stage presence of the principals. The staging was, with the exception of the random acrobats, unobtrusive and allowed the principles to use the text to put the story across. I left the theatre happy to have seen a favourite work and having been able to understand the text, combined with that unbeatable feeling of seeing familiar singers take their artistry to a new level. The audience rewarded the performance with an extremely generous ovation.