The problems in mounting a production of Offenbach's only attempt at grand opera are numerous. No definitive edition of The Tales of Hoffman exists as Offenbach tinkered with the score right up to the first performance. He died before completing the work so much of the material is in sketch form only and is as such unfinished.
ENO opts for Michael Kaye's critical edition which first received an airing in Los Angeles in 1998. This makes for a long evening in the theatre (just under four hours) and, whilst I can appreciate why ENO wanted to do it, on the first night the decision was not wholly vindicated.
Most of the disappointment has to be laid at the feet of director Graham Vick who seems to direct most of the show on autopilot. There are some good stage pictures within Tobias Hoheisel's boxed set but most, alas, are tired old operatic clichés. Vick never ceases to baffle me; how can a director who delivers such epoch-making productions as Die Meistersinger, Un Re in Ascolto and Mitridate (ROH) and Ermione, Queen of Spades (Glyndebourne) then produce something as mundane as this?
Musically, The Tales of Hoffman is a mixed bag. Paul Daniel conducts with an obvious love for the piece and the orchestra responds with excellently drilled playing. The Barcarole which precedes the Venice Act is beautifully realised. Indeed, I thought it one of the best parts of the evening, and as this takes place with the curtain down, it produces real theatrical frisson which is lacking when the curtain is up.
The show is cast from strength but Rosa Mannion's singing in all four soprano roles sets alarm bells ringing about the state of her current vocal health. She sounds tired and raw, and is simply not up to the dazzling coloratura of the role of Olympia. She improves greatly as the more lyrical Antonia and sings well as Giulietta, but in each role, top notes are effortful and ugly. (She withdrew from the second performance due to a chest infection so perhaps her singing on the first night was down to this).
The Australian tenor Julian Gavin's singing is coming on leaps and bounds and he makes a thrilling role debut in the title part. Despite his desperate attempts to get under the skin of the character, however, ultimately I was left wondering just who Hoffmann is. The evening's best singing comes from Susan Parry as Nicklausse.
First nights can be so frustrating. The Tales of Hoffman needs time to run and, if Mannion can overcome her first night difficulties, it should develop into a good, if vacuous, night at the opera.
Keith McDonnell, March 1998