Offenbach's unfinished masterpiece was hacked about at its first performance to make it short enough for the Paris audience to hear it and be able to catch the last metro home. Throughout the hundred or so years since its premiere it has been performed in one or other butchered version. More recently, bits of the original manuscript have started to turn up again, most notably in the Paris censor's office. There are currently two rival completions claiming to be the authentic opera as envisaged by Offenbach.
This Covent Garden production from 1981 predates all that scholarship but it is still quite a chunky opera. There is a prologue in a tavern in which a drunken Hoffmann explains that there are three women in his life. Then we have three separate stories in which Hoffmann, accompanied by his young companion Nicklausse, falls in love with, first, an animated doll, secondly a courtesan and thirdly a doomed singer. In each of these stories there is a sinister rival who comes between Hoffmann and his beloved. Finally, back in the tavern, Hoffmann explains that these three women are all facets of the same woman, Stella. But, when Stella arrives, Hoffmann is in a drunken stupor and she leaves with his nemesis Lindorf. At this point Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse is revealed as his Muse and his one real love.
Offenbach may have wanted all four villains to be played by one bass-baritone and all four lovers by one soprano. In common with many productions, this 1981 staging uses different singers for each role. However, director John Schlesinger does ensure that a leering Lindorf appears at the end of each segment to emphasise that he is the true villain of the piece.
The opera is full of exquisite music but the two best-known numbers are Olympia's song and the barcarolle. Olympia, sung by Luciana Serra is a doll who comes to life when Hoffmann dons his rose-tinted spectacles. I like the way Schlesinger bathes the stage in pink light whenever Plácido Domingo, as Hoffmann, puts on these spectacles. Olympia's song is a tour de force of high-note coloratura but every time she goes for the high note her mechanism runs down and her creator, Spalanzani, has to wind her up. The barcarolle duet comes in the second story where the courtesan Giulietta conspires to rob Hoffmann of his shadow. The ravishing Agnes Balsa is Guilietta and she can steal my shadow any time she wants. She duets with Claire Powell's Nicklausse who, here and elsewhere, is not convincing as a man but very convincing at the end when she becomes the muse. The final story is of Antonia who suffers from a mysterious illness that will kill her if she tries to sing. Ileana Cotrubas is rather disappointing in this role but it is a difficult one to pull off because it is so downbeat.
Plácido Domingo is vocally impressive throughout and makes Hoffmann different in each story: a naïve student with Olympia, a young Elvis with Giulietta, a serious artist with Antonia and an aging drunk in the prologue and epilogue. This is a traditional production of Hoffmann but, under John Schlesinger's direction it is full of insights and imaginative touches. With four elaborate sets and four scene changes this must be a long evening in the theatre but watching at home it passes in a glorious moment.
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