Les contes d'Hoffmann


Offenbach Les contes d'Hoffmann opera to a libretto by Jules Barbier. New version directed 2014 by Christoph Marthaler with Joaquim Rathke at the Teatro Real. Stars Eric Cutler (Hoffmann), Anne Sofie Von Otter (La Muse/Nicklausse), Vito Priante (Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto), Christoph Homberger (Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio), Ana Durlovski (Olympia), Measha Brueggergosman (Antonia/Giulietta), Altea Garrido (Stella), Lani Poulson (La Mère d’Antonia), Jean-Philippe Lafont (Maître Luther/Crespel), Gerardo López (Nathanaël), Graham Valentine (Spalanzani), Tomeu Bibiloni (Hermann), and Isaac Galán (Schlemil). Actors and dancers are: Joaquín Abella, Catalina Amorós, Mauricio Bautista, Beatriz Bergamín, Paco Celdrán, Veronica Garzón, Haizam Fathy, Ada Fernádez, Macarena Hoffmann, Carolina Isach, Jack Jamison, Antonio Jiménez, and Fátima Rojas. Sylvain Cambreling conducts the Orchestra & Chorus of the Teatro Real de Madrid (Chorus Master Andrés Másparo). Sets and costumes by Anna Viebrock; lighting by Olaf Winter; dramaturgy by Malte Ubenauf; choreography by Altea Garrido; directed for TV by Jérémie Cuvillier; produced by François Duplat and Xavier Dubois. Sung in French. Released 2015, Blu-ray disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A-

My great-great grandmother was a contemporary of E.T.A. Hoffman. My great grandmother Alice was a contemporary of Offenbach. Alice owned slaves and farmed in South Carolina; by the time Offenbach wrote Les contes d'Hoffmann, the slaves were free and the farm had gone to timber. Alice probably never heard of Hoffmann or Offenbach and knew nothing of opera, but she did know that rich women lived in mansions and wore fancy dresses. Why do I write this? To remind you that Offenbach wrote Les contes a long time ago when society was stuffy but elite consumption was frothy and conspicuous. Today I'm writing about Christoph Marthaler's new version of the opera, which is set in our time. Alert! This is not your great-grandmother's version of Les contes d'Hoffman:

In the scene above we are not in a tavern in Nürnberg long ago, but in a culture club in Madrid today. There are 2 nude statutes and one nude model in the plastic arts wing of the club where members hone their drawing skills. There's a cozy bar, and tourists have formed a chorus. The club looks a lot like the Circulo de Belles Artes in Madrid. For example, see the screenshot below of the cafe at the Circulo and compare it to the culture club. The reclining statute is Moise Huerta's famous Jump from Lefkade:

Contes d'Hoffman contains a mashup of 4 different stories by and about E.T.A Hoffman. These stories were familiar to folks 150 years ago, but no longer. To understand this new Marthaler version, you will have to bone up on plot details on the Internet or in your favorite opera book. All I can do here is give you some idea why this is not your great-granny's version of this opera. But before I start discussing some of the main dishes in this production, lets jump to the end where Marthaler has added a completely new dessert. It seems that Hoffmann had a new infatuation with an opera singer named Stella. After 3 hours of music, Hoffmann finally meets Stella in the Epilogue. Stella is played by Altea Garrido, who is the choreographer for this show and not a singer. She responds to Hoffmann's (feeble and drunken) advances with the following diatribe, all spoken like a trained actress in Spanish (the opera is sung in French). Here is Stella's diatribe translated into English:

I'm suffocating in the middle of all this!
Give me some air!
Open all the windows!
Open more windows than there are in the whole world!
Not one great idea, no idea of structure, no sense of the larger Edifice, no concern for Organic Creation!
Not one political movement that rattles with the seeds of ideas when you shake it!

Vile age of quasi and second-rate individuals, of lackeys full of lackey ambitions to become lackey kings!
Lackeys who don't know what ambition is!
Strong men of Lilliputian Europe, pass by as I shower you with my Contempt! Pass by, radicals of the Piddly, yokels of Progress, whose ignorance stands on the pillar of audacity and whose impotence is propped up by neo-theories!
Pass by, anthill giants, drunk on your bourgeois brat personalities, smug in the good life you filched from your parents' pantry and your nerves all tied up by heredity!
Pass by, half-breeds, pass by weaklings who proclaim only weakness!
Pass by, epileptic dung-heap without grandeur, hysterical trash heap of plays and shows, social senility of the individual concept of youth!
Pass by, mildew of the New, merchandise that's shabby before it leaves its inventor's head!
Habitués of revolution, pass by!
Send everyone home to peel symbolic potatoes!
Give this mindless pandemonium a bath!
Tie it to a leash and go show it in Australia!


Men, nations, objectives, all a huge zero!
All are to blame for the failure of everything! The failure of everything is to blame for all them! Completely, utterly, and unequivocally!
I shout this out at the top of my lungs, with both arms raised high, as I gaze on the Atlantic abstractly saluting Infinity!

Wow! These words about are about 6% of a poem called Ultimatum written in 1917 by the Portuguese intellectual Fernando Pessoa. Obviously, Marthaler wanted to turn some of the Hoffmann/Offenbach froth into broth! Now let's turn our attention back to the music.

Below is a shot of Nicklausse (Anne Sofie von Otter) playing air guitar and singing the famous tune Les oiseaux dans la charmill. Nicklausse combines here the roles of Hoffmann's good friend and that of his Muse:

Here's a close-up of the ever-game Madrid Opera Chorus. This will be a busy night for them:

With 4 stories in the mix there will be 4 villains, all brilliantly played by Vito Priante, seen here below in the role of Lindorf, a rival of Hoffmann for the love of Stella. If you don't know about the 4 roles in advance, you will get confused. By the way, at first I thought the girl who jumped from the Lefkade was made of plaster. But now you see that she's alive:

Below, shirtless on the left is Hermann (Tomeu Bibiloni) and on the right is Nathanaël (Gerardo López), cronies of Hoffmann. López spends most of his time looking like Salvador Dali. I think Marthaler decided it would be too much to give López a long handlebar mustache. And yes, we have a new model. The union doesn't let anyone pose too long:

Hoffmann (Eric Cutler) shows up at the club. I had no idea how tall and big Cutler is. If there's ever an opera about a tenor basketball player, Cutler will own the role. There are three dancers in a knot rolling about the stage. There is a lot of surreal choreography in this opera, and this is the only decent screenshot I could get of the dancing. And, yes, there's yet another model. This production definitely has the most nudes to appear so far in HDVD:

Hoffmann agrees to tell everyone the stories of his three greatest loves:

The first story is about Olympia, a mechanical girl. This is basically the same story you may be familiar with from the ballet Coppélia (also based on E. T. A. Hoffmann). Below you see the evil inventor Spalanzani (Graham Valentine). He's a kind of Major Domo for the club. He's constantly moving about, often carrying female body parts. So you know he's trying to cook up a dream-girl in the kitchen:

Vito Priante appears as Coppélius, who has "eyes" for sale. Originally, the eyes were used in the mechanical girls to make them more enticing. Here the eyes are spectacles, which explains the huge number of eyeglass props we see on the stage:

Christoph Homberger portrays Cochenille, Spalanzani's lackey, announcing that a big party is ready to start. I mainly included this screenshot because you can see the hands of Spalanzani with two remote controls. Marthaler, like I, is obviously frustrated with 5 remote controls in every room of his house---so remotes play a big role in this production:

Because he is wearing magic glasses, Hoffmann falls for doll Olympia (Anna Durlovsky) who sings an amazingly difficult song in the super soprano range:

By now the girl who jumped from the Lefkada has left the stage, and Olympia takes her place for a moment:

The party gets out of hand with wild antics of dancers, models, and chorus members. Eventually Hoffmann discovers that Olympia is an automaton:

Next Hoffmann visits an old girl friend, Antonia (Measha Brueggergosman). Antonia is real, virtuous, and worthy. But she is too ill to take up again with Hoffmann:

Now we see Brueggergosman as Giulietta, a courtesan and the last of Hoffman's three great loves. The scene has moved to the billiards room at the culture club, and here we enjoy the famous barcarolle music. Since we have the ghost of Salvador Dali in the cast, it's only just and right that we have a melting clock for a prop, which you can see on the billiard table just behind Hoffmann. (Pop quiz: what famous painting has all the melted clocks? Answer at the end.) Eventually Hoffmann is tricked into killing Giulietta's pimp Schlemil so Giulietta can flee the scene with Dapertutto, yet another alter-ego of Hoffmann's nemesis Lindorf:

Finally Stella appears for what could be a happy ending. But Stella unloads her ultimatum on poor Hoffmann:

Stella's diatribe leaves everyone baffled. Nicklausse urges Hoffmann to make some healthier choices:

But booze is all he can think of now:

So Offenbach did finally manage, at least with a boost from Fernando Pessoa, to write a serious opera. But in the screenshot above, Hoffmann seems to be letting his creator down. Fear not, the ending turns out a little more edifying than than this, which you can experience by just buying the disc.

Les contes d'Hoffmann was one of the most popular landmarks of the Romantic era replete with storms, stresses, longing, and a persistent sense of doom in the face of inscrutable reality. Even Pessoa's savage diatribe, which turned out to be right, was written in 1917 and now is starting to sound quaint. (Pessoa was a mystic futurist who dabbled in every "ism" there was. Like Nietzsche, Pessoa lived as a starving hermit in the middle of town. He was full of astonishing ideas but produced no sensible suggestion. Out of the 25,000 + pages of text he left behind, there had to be at least 260 words or so that were correct.) Today all the Romantics are gone and we are stuck with existentialism, scepticism, surrealism, and the hope that science will eventually somehow take us off the hook.

Opera is like a child who can't sit still---it has to keep growing up. So how does one updatea Romantic warhorsein an opera house to make it relevant today? Changing the libretto or the music would be too expensive, so the burden falls on sets, props, dramaturgy, and sometimes, choreography. Anna Viebrock did her part in this Les contes d'Hoffmann by creating an alternate Madrid of today right there on her stage at the Real. But the real heroine was Altea Garrido with her surreal dancers informing every scene with their bizarre antics. And who came up with the excerpt from Pessoa? I like to think Garrido brought this in and was rewarded by being allowed to do the recitation herself. Pessoa doesn't have any answers, but he does inspire us to think of questions.

Once the mise-en-scène becomes the driving factor, what we need are actor-singers who can fill the gap between the orchestra and the action. In this regard there is no weak link in the cast. Of course, Olympia has to be a world-class singer to hit all those high notes---Ana Durlovski did that task smartly.  And Eric Cutler made singing Hoffmann seem easy. I'm full of praise for all the others too, especially the frightening Graham Valentine as the mad doctor. The orchestra played well and was well recorded. I'm pretty sure that Marthaler worked closely with TV director Cuvillier---the PQ is excellent throughout and picture content is superb with a great balance of full-stage shots, near-shots, and close-ups. And there are many short clips with telling details that could only have been achieved through close collaboration of everybody involved. You get to see a lot at home that the live audience probably could not detect.

Many people don't think of the Madrid Real as a leading opera house, but it has in recent years been just that. And they have worked hard to put out good HDVDs. The best La Bohème video by far is still the Real version with Inva Mula. And we have at least 11 others fine opera HDVDs from the Real in addition to their incomparable flamenco titles and a beautiful Luisa Fernanda zurzuela. Finally, our HDVDarts story about the Real C(H)ŒURS opera/dance/theater title continues to be popular with Internauts.

This happened under the leadership Gerhard Mortier, who died a few months after subject title was filmed. Mortier had the knack of backing piercing-point productions relevant to today's world, but which still managed to be humane and comprehensible. True, his Les contes d'Hoffmann is not a show to appeal to your great-granny. But Tim Ashley, writing in the October 2015 Gramophone (page 91) calls Marthaler's staging "splendidly creepy." So I predict it will do well in the HDVD market---it seems it's already a best-seller for MDT in England. I give subject title an "A-", which is a good grade for anything with so much surrealistic imagery and action.

Here's the BelAir trailer:

(Famous painting: The Persistence of Memory from 1931)