Les Contes d’Hoffmann at ROH

Review of Les Contes d’Hoffmann on 07/11/16

I realised at the opening of the Royal Opera House’s revival of Les Contes d’Hoffmann yesterday that this production is in fact older than I am. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a production that opened when my parents were still teenagers, it’s beginning to feel a little tired. Much of it is still good, and it has stood the test of time well, but its age seems to be leading to a tendency to dramatic laziness, at least in the direction. The excitement, novelty, and life which it is generally so easy to find in a brand new production has faded. It seems to me that much of this is probably the fault of the revival director, Daniel Dooner. The performance needed more of an artistic push than it was given, and on the opening night the whole opera felt still under-rehearsed and more than a little scrappy.

The singing throughout generally impressed, however. Vittorio Grigòlo was in fine vocal form as the central Hoffmann. He handled the French well, and every note felt cared for and well-shaped. His tendency to melodrama worked for the lovelorn poet, though his excessiveness sometimes still overcame it. My usual problem with Grigòlo’s performances is his addition of seemingly unconscious gestures that don’t seem to stem from a characterisation decision, the worst of which is a thrusting forward of the chest with thrown back arms. This time, the gestures were reined in, which was a relief – his Werther earlier this year was beset by these distractions.

Thomas Hampson played all four of the villains fairly successfully. His Councillor Lindorf and Dappertutto (who looked rather like a pantomime villain in a sparkling costume) lacked menace, however, and seemed a little flat. Coppélius was suitably maverick, and Doctor Miracle had plenty of darkness, and Hampson gave one of the best vocal performances as him.

As for the three heroines, Sofia Fomina’s glassy Olympia worked well in an Act 1 that was amusing and entertaining. Spalanzani (Christophe Mortagne) worked well with her, but as a whole it ended up feeling a little too facile and failed to give much depth of emotion. It far exceeded Act 2, however, which lacked any life whatsoever. Despite the setting, it contained no hint of the erotic, and lacked any frisson of excitement. Christine Rice’s Giulietta had a good tone, but failed to lift the act sufficiently. Things grew considerably better in Act 3, however, which was carried mainly by Sonya Yoncheva’s beautiful performance. While she could have benefited from a little more of a suggestion of fragility in Antonia, she and Thomas Hampson gave a menacing and riveting finale end to the act.

For the rest, Kate Lindsey’s voice, though occasionally dwarfed by Grigòlo, was in radiant form, and she brought both wit and sincerity to Nicklausse, and was suitably enigmatic and ethereal as the Muse. The conducting was another area where things fell flat, though. Evelino Pidò gave no life to the score. He seemed to add a pedestrian tone that the cast valiantly fought against, but could not always overcome. The orchestra had some ensemble problems at the beginning, as well, but these were mostly overcome. There were still some problems between the orchestra and chorus, and though these were not the worst sins of the performance, they added to the impression that this was very much a production only just out of rehearsal.

Overall, this was a performance in which good singers fought against the dullness that seemed to mostly stem from poor direction, both dramatic and musical. Lethargy constantly threatened to overtake them, and occasionally the music was overcome by it.