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Opera Australia reviews Sydney Opera House what's on Sydney The Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach

the tales of hoffmann – opera australia world premiere

 The famous “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” Otherwise known as “Barcarolle” from the Giulietta Act of the Tales of Hoffmann sung by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca.

Sydney Opera House hosted the world premiere of Opera Australia’s The Tales of Hoffmann last night directed by Italian Damiano Michieletto. It’s been a long time coming with the production and premiere interrupted all throughout the pandemic. Featuring mostly overseas soloists in the major roles, the new production used what appears to be an almost completely Italian production team with the exception of VANDAL as Projection Designer and Shaun Rennie as Assistant Director.

A little background first

Composer Jacques Offenbach reigned supreme in Paris through the late 1800s with his witty, melodic and comical operas. Their popularity surpassed all others and fast became world famous. As Offenbach was getting older and recognising the end of life approaching faster than desired, this opera seemed to be a rather solemn way to finish a magnificent career filled with light and laughter. Was it planned to be so dark and mystical? We may never know for he left the work unfinished when he passed away with a myriad of draft sketches and fragments of music.

Composer, Ernst Guiraud was given the task to sew it altogether into a finished work and the premiere occurred February 1881, four months after Offenbach’s death.

Since then, many more Tales of Hoffmann drafts and notes by Offenbach have been found which have opened more options for modern opera companies in how they wish to present the work. Even the order of the acts can be swapped around. This new Opera Australia version adheres to Offenbach’s preferential order of acts.

What’s the story about?

The plot is based around a play Offenbach attended “Les contes fantastiques d’Hoffmann” many years before. It was written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, the two who wrote the libretto to Gounod’s Faust. Ernst Hoffman was a real guy from the late 1700s to early 1800s. He was a colourful character who drew cartoons, composed, wrote stories and poems; was a theatre critic, played viola da gamba and piano. There were a number of times his written and drawn caricatures got him into trouble with the law. His life swung from feast to famine giving him ample inspiration for his creative works. His style of writing was unique at the time and he became what is considered a pioneer in the Fantasy genre where reality transforms into the stuff of feverish dreams. Two great examples of his stories were used for the ballets Coppelia and The Nutcracker. Both of these stories begin with reality and then dive into darker, more scary, magical themes.

In their play, Barbier and Carré took a few of Hoffmann’s stories, with the author placed as the main character, then drew them together at the beginning and end with a more reality based scene in a pub creating the setting for Hoffmann to tell the stories. Offenbach carried this structure through to his opera.

The opening act/prologue introduces Hoffmann as a moody writer intent on getting drunk and speaking of his latest infatuation, a famous opera singer called Stella. The men in the pub encourage him to tell a story and he entertains them with one about a grotesque dwarf called Kleinzach. This leads to the “meat” of the opera with three acts, one for each of the great loves of his life.

His first love is very similar to the story of Coppelia where, as a young man, he falls in love with an automaton mechanical doll called Olympia. The second love is a frail young woman, Antonia, who is likely consumptive. She is cocooned by her father who desperately attempts to preserve her life. The third is the courtesan Giulietta who is open to bribery and has very little love on her mind.

Each scene or act carries common themes. One Soprano plays the role of these four female characters (Stella, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) with wide ranging vocal styles making the role incredibly difficult to cast. Each story has a “baddie” who is Hoffmann’s nemesis, all played by one Baritone. There are minor characters as servants and relatives needed to move the story along and the one who carries through from beginning to end is Hoffmann’s Muse.

She begins the opera jealous that Hoffmann is spending too much time dwelling on Stella instead of working on his creative pursuits. She disguises herself as Nicklausse, his best friend, in order to accompany him on his adventures and give clues or instructions to benefit the outcome, most of which are ignored. From a writer’s point of view it’s an interesting hindsight that, as a creative, his Muse is always there and he knows he failed to listen to her intuitive messages which might have saved his hind on multiple occasions.

The Premiere

This production is certainly a surprise if you’ve seen other versions. The sets designed by Paolo Fantin are based around a ¾ perspective framework with cubby holes and sliding screens or mirrors, high contrast outlines around the frames plus strong colour themes to mark the differing acts. The costumes by Carla Teti have a timeless feel not limited to any particular period and instantly identify clearly defined characters amongst a myriad of storylines.

The Direction is strange, to say the least, and does not keep to story. For most of the times our great Opera Chorus should be on stage, they are essentially booth singers off stage whilst the attention is taken by a small corps of dancers. Hoffmann’s story of the grotesque dwarf Kleinzach is depicted by a circus performer on enormous high stilts who hands Hoffmann a mirror, then plays the Pied Piper rounding up the dancer rats who have terrified the pub guests (a nod to the Nutcracker perhaps?). The story of consumptive Antonia, who is not to sing lest she die from the effort, is replaced with ballet dancers even though the words over and over confirm singing is the crux to the story. Antonia’s mother is sung by Jennifer Black who is never seen on stage. Putting on a pair of pointe shoes finally does Antonia in.

The most popular aria of the opera, known as Barcarolle, is audibly disturbed as the two singers wander amongst chorus members looking rather disdainfully at each other – they are sizing each other up rather than working together.  Another running theme through this production is characters taunting and humiliating each other. Where fun and lightness might have been common in Offenbach previous works, this is more about laughing at another’s expense. The cruelty appears in every scene.

The sinister and disturbing interpretation is also taken to the extreme with what appears to be Satanist symbolism which has become a running theme with the company for many years now. I’m not sure Offenbach would be happy with what has become of such a master work. It’s a horror filled depiction which doesn’t sit well as the swan song of such an amazing master entertainer. Still, opera seems to enjoy pushing horror much more than in decades gone by. Perhaps it’s exactly what you are looking for. (Please note, this symbolism does not reflect on the current CEO or Artistic Director in any way as the project has been in the works for some years now. We look forward to seeing what new productions they choose in the future, hopefully as a contrast to the past dark years.)

The Artists

Let’s move on to the very best reasons to see this production… the cast. Biggest applause by far went to Australian soprano Jessica Pratt. With two decades of international engagements working with the finest companies in the world, Pratt is showing no signs of slowing down. As mentioned, taking on the roles of Hoffmann’s four loves is an incredibly difficult challenge which Pratt managed with aplomb. Her first major aria “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” otherwise known as the Doll Song, is often used to showcase the very best coloratura soprano voices in concerts and recitals. Pratt’s version was accurate, strong and mind blowing, pushing the piece well beyond the original composition. The applause was deafening, I’ve never heard the audience go so wild for a soprano for many years. Each role she played clearly defined it from the previous one from the fragile Antonia to the cold hearted Giulietta. She was outstanding in every way.

Theatre review Opera Australia Sydney Opera House July 2023
Tenor Iván Ayón Rivas and mezzo Agnes Sarkis in The Tales Of Hoffmann world premiere production at the Sydney Opera House for Opera Australia July 2023.

Opposite her, in the role of Hoffmann, was Peruvian tenor Iván Ayón Rivas returning to OA after a triumphant season of La Boheme in March. Rivas was perfect in this role with his wonderful, clear voice and excellent acting skills. In the Olympia act he is dressed as a school boy and gets to sit beside his crush. This silent acting of barely contained delight and shyness had the audience laughing. Hoffmann’s role is diverse in its acts from depressed drunk to fierce stalker to captive soul. Rivas is expanding on his dramatic abilities and impressing the Sydney audience more each time he is seen. We can’t wait to see what he brings to the next season. Bravo!

Baritone singer Marko Mimica The Tales of Hoffmann Opera Australia July 2023.
The Tales of Hoffmann baddie played by Baritone Marko Mimica gave a powerful performance at the Sydney Opera House.

Playing the baddie in each Act was Croatian baritone Marko Mimica making his debut with the company. Mimica demonstrated great skill vocally and dramatically and was a hit with the audience. Excellent work and a beautifully commanding, rounded voice as well.

Iranian born, Sydney raised mezzo Agnes Sarkis played Nicklausse, the friend who accompanies Hoffmann through his tales. Whilst the costume was unflattering, her performance was excellent and a great opportunity to really show us what she’s made of. The original story had the Muse in disguise as Nicklausse. In this production Sian Sharp got to stay the Muse throughout the performance dressed in a Dame Edna inspired suit, blowing glitter into each scene.

All the Australian minor characters did an excellent job. Noteworthy would be Adam Player as the four Servants and Tomas Dalton for an excellent performance as Nathanaël.

The Opera Australia orchestra were brilliant, as usual. Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire directed in a very natural way which did not distract focus away from the stage – this makes a great relief. The Opera chorus were their fabulous selves, taking particular delight in the scenes where they actually got to be seen on stage.

All in all, it’s definitely worth buying a ticket if you can get one. The talent is outstanding and if the dancers distract you too much from the storyline, you can always close your eyes. Being in a theatre with live musicians and singers can never be replaced by a sound system. Get to the theatre!

Season runs till 22 July 2023.

Book your tickets for The Tales of Hoffmann: https://opera.org.au/productions/the-tales-of-hoffmann-sydney/

Principal Artists

Conductor: Guillaume Tourniaire

Hoffmann: Iván Ayón Rivas

Olympia / Antonia / Giulietta / Stella: Jessica Pratt

Coppelius / Dappertutto / Dr Miracle / Lindorf: Marko Mimica

Nicklausse: Agnes Sarkis

Frantz / Andres / Cochenille / Pitichinaccio: Adam Player

Production

Director: Damiano Michieletto

Set Designer: Paolo Fantin

Costume Designer: Carla Teti

Lighting Designer: Alessandro Carletti

Projection Designer: VANDAL

Choreographer: Chiara Vecchi

Assistant Directors: Eleonora Gravagnola and Shaun Rennie

Related links

More about Jessica Pratt: http://en.jessicapratt.com/

More about The Tales of Hoffmann: https://fgo.org/education/downloads/The_Tales_of_Hoffmann_study_guide.pdf 

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