If an opera contains elements of the macabre, there’s one director that all savvy opera bosses will want to engage to deliver the goods - namely the brilliantly subversive Richard Jones. I’ve never felt short-changed by any of his stagings, but he is in his element when working with material that has supernatural overtones and diabolical undertones. Those whose memories stretch back to the early nineties will remember his wonderfully bizarre ‘scratch ‘n’ sniff’ staging of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, designed by the curiously obtuse Brothers Quay, so when faced with the thornier challenge of Offenbach’s often sprawling grand opera concoction, The Tales of Hoffmann, Jones would seem the natural choice to make sense of this uneven work.
He doesn’t disappoint as this staging, first seen in Munich last autumn, is a triumph of wit, invention and the macabre. Within Giles Cadle’s ingenious set, which is fundamentally the same for each act, but with clever distortions to match the mood of each location, Jones steers us through the alcoholic meanderings of the protagonist with a sure hand that never falters, and manages to turn this broken-backed work into a near-masterpiece in the process.
The ‘Olympia’ Act takes us into a surreal woodland vista where Spalanzani’s mechanical doll is part Lady Bunny, part Sleeping Beauty and comes to life aided and abetted by Lucy Burge’s hilarious choreography. The ‘Antonia’ act is probably the best as this is where Jones’ penchant for the surreal really takes centre stage as the consumptive heroine sings herself to death perched high on a collection of oversized opera scores, penned by a variety of French composers, whilst the sinister Dr Miracle and his retinue of Addams’ family lookalikes goad her into performing one, fatal last aria. If the Giulietta Act, here coming last rather than second which is usually the case, seems too much of an anti-climax, the ingenious way in Dapertutto steals the reflections and souls of the courtesan’s suitors via an over-sized shaving mirror is the stuff of nightmares, and a typical example of Jones’ vivid imagination.
Of course without a superlative cast, Jones’ box of tricks would count for nought, but ENO fields as strong an ensemble cast as it’s done all season. Vocal honours go to Christine Rice’s Muse/Nicklausse, who not only does a brilliant ‘Just William’ take on the role – grubby knees and conker to boot, but provides plenty of full-blooded singing throughout the long evening. Her voice seems more keenly coloured than before, the top freer than ever. When are we going to hear her as Strauss’ Composer or Octavian? Soon, please!
As the booze-addled Hoffmann, Barry Banks, who’s better known for his forays into the Italian bel canto repertoire, here displays ringing high notes allied to a wining stage presence that grows in stature as the evening progresses. Clive Bayley is suitably insidious as the four villains, each nicely contrasted, yet all sung with a dark, malevolent tone whilst Simon Butteriss almost steals the show as Frantz and Spalanzani’s servant, Cochenille – an hilarious fag-in-the-mouth drag routine.
I say almost as the young American soprano Georgia Jarman is a revelation as the four heroines. She has the pinpoint accuracy required for the exacting vocal demands made by the coloratura writing for Olympia, a winning lyricism that suits Antonia perfectly, and the right amount of sensuous tone to bring out the sexiness of Giulietta. She plainly has an exciting career ahead of her.
Under conductor Anthony Walker’s baton the chorus and orchestra play at the top of their game. All in a all this new Hoffmann provides a hugely entertaining evening in the theatre and is yet another feather in ENO’s cap.