Bayley, Clive


HoffmannJacques Offenbach - The Tales of Hoffmann

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Antony Walker, Richard Jones, Barry Banks, Georgia Jarman, Clive Bayley, Christine Rice, Iain Paton, Grame Danby, Simon Butteriss, Catherine Young | The Coliseum, 23 February 2012

For his final opera - his only opera proper, since his prolific output up to 1880 consisted principally of comic operetta - Jacques Offenbach found a suitably inventive and imaginative mind to “collaborate” with in the shape of ETA Hoffmann. Using three of the writer’s fabulous stories, interlinked through involving their original author in the relating and playing out of the stories, finding common connections in character types that allow them to be played and sung by singers in multiple roles, The Tales of Hoffmann is consequently a very rich work where the contributions of the composer and the original author can be played upon to interesting effect. The English National Opera’s new production of the opera (already seen in Munich as a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera) seems to find a like-minded stage director of inventiveness and imagination in Richard Jones, but while his stage design for the production delivers everything you would expect from this type of match, it also feels a little too neat and obvious and doesn’t yield any unexpected results.

There’s a balance between playfulness and tragedy to be achieved in The Tales of Hoffmann and Jones (as seen most famously recently in his Royal Opera House production for Turnage’s Anna Nicole) can be good at showing an underlying dark unease beneath the surface kitsch and colour. As if it’s all conjured up from within the fevered imagination of an alcoholic writer at his wits end (only a little licence involved in relating this to the real-life circumstances of ETA Hoffmann), the action in each of the acts takes place in a uniformly shaped, trompe d’oeil twisted room, with a bed, a bookcase, a sink, a writing desk and several other elements that change subtly in form and colouration according to each of the three gothic romances that Hoffman relates to his assembled (imaginary?) audience, three affairs that have taken him to the edge of despair and self-destruction. The sense that this fevered imagination is enhanced by the smoking of mind-altering substances is reinforced by the repeated appearance of Hoffmann, his muse and three gentlemen smoking pipes in between each of the stories, the smoke forming the names of the three women involved - Olympia, Antonia and Giuletta.

Hoffmann

Each of those three parts then is deliriously coloured to emphasis the fairytale quality of the original stories along with the dark undercurrent of gothic horror and tragedy that underpins them, and Richard Jones’s designs couldn’t be faulted for being eye-catching and imaginative in this respect. Just as in Offenbach’s score, there’s room for those familiar broader comic touches as well as for the more sensitive plays of character and emotion that lies within the situations, but it often feels perfunctory when compared to Offenbach’s wilder flights of fancy in his opéra comique, and merely playing on opera conventions. The production mirrors the nature of the work perfectly well in this respect, in other words, but it doesn’t manage to make anything more of those links and contrasts in the stories, in the differing views that Hoffmann and Offenbach bring to them, or in how they even relate to each other.

Some lovely melodies aside, The Tales of Hoffmann isn’t the most sophisticated work, and there perhaps isn’t much to delve into beneath the surface, but these elements and contradictions could be exploited further in the hands of a more adventurous director. Considering that the theme of the banal realities of life being enhanced by the imagination of a disturbed character or lunatic form a core part of the films of Terry Gilliam, I couldn’t help think that this opera would have been a more interesting vehicle for the former Python than Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the ENO (notwithstanding his success with that) - whereas with Richard Jones, The Tales of Hoffmann just feels in safe hands. It’s all very entertaining and visually impressive, but personally, I think this particular opera, with its rather old-fashioned storytelling devices relating a confusing and strange narrative needs rather more than a straightforward telling. Jones gets the surface down well, but there’s not a whole lot of sense or depth in it as a whole.

Hoffmann

It’s left to the singers then to try and bring something more memorable out of the production and, while the performances are terrific, it’s not enough to bring any new qualities out of the work. Barry Banks sings his heart out, but without any depth to the work or the production, he seems, like the character of Hoffmann in his choice of women (and like Offenbach himself), to be expending an awful lot of energy and investing a lot of emotion in something that doesn’t seem worthy of his efforts. Georgia Jarman acquits herself admirably across a notoriously difficult singing of the opera’s multi-part soprano role, bringing some genuine sensitivity to the character of Antonia at least, if he is unable to do much within the staging for the other parts. Christine Rice also brought some heartfelt emotion and character to the muse disguised as Nicklausse - indeed surpassing the otherwise unimaginative director’s interpretation of the character. Clive Bayley sang well and was suitably sinister as the villain of the pieces.

Antony Walker’s conducting of the score was excellent, but like all the other aspects of the production, it didn’t raise the work to any new levels - but that might perhaps be asking for too much. That perhaps sums up my overall impression of the ENO’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which on its own terms was a delightful and entertaining account of the work, marvellously performed with skill and commitment, but anyone looking for something a little more thoughtful or challenging from Richard Jones’s production could well feel a little bit disappointed.

RakesProgressIgor Stravinsky - The Rake’s Progress

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Vladimir Jurowski, John Cox, David Hockney, Miah Persson, Topi Lehtipuu, Clive Bayley, Matthew Rose, Susan Gorton, Elena Manistina, Graham Clark, Duncan Rock | Opus Arte

Although it evidently depends on the opera in question, there is always room nonetheless for a wide range of expression and interpretation in how productions of operas are staged. There are however no hard and fast rules – a baroque opera composed according to very strict musical conventions can take on a new life when subjected to a modern, avant-garde stage production, while relatively modern and difficult works can be opened up by a traditional straightforward staging that reveals their references, origins and underlying intent. Few works however seem so perfectly matched and strike such a perfect balance between the intentions of the opera work and its presentation on the stage as David Hockney’s designs for the classic Glyndebourne production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

The measure of the success of the production is that it was first put on at Glyndebourne in 1975 and, as this 2010 performance at the festival shows, it is still delighting and wowing audiences thirty-five years later and will no doubt continue to be revived for many more years. There aren’t many productions that have that kind of staying power. A modern artist surely not to everyone’s taste, one might expect something relatively avant-garde from David Hockney when called upon to design the set for a 20th century opera, but in reality, his approach almost perfectly mirrors Stravinsky’s method of composition for The Rake’s Progress. Seeking inspiration directly from the source of William Hogarth original drawings made in the 1730s, Hockney’s sets reproduce the intricate cross-hatching in bold, colourful strokes on flat board backdrops – a modern interpretation of a classical design.

RakesProgress

It works so well because, after all, that’s exactly what Stravinsky’s opera does also. Composed in 1951, the composer working in the neo-classical form (before he moved on to serial composition), The Rake’s Progress accordingly plays to the conventions of the 18th century opera. Classically structured into three acts, with three scenes in each, Stravinsky’s 20th century composition even uses recitative with harpsichord continuo and da capo arias in his treatment of a subject that has many resonances with Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni, but has an even a greater range of references to draw from over the subsequent expansions of the form and subject through Donizetti, Rossini and Gounod, to name but a few.

Since it wears its references openly, the names of the characters even reflecting their types – Tom Rakewell leaving behind his beloved Anne Trulove on the instigation of his demonic alter-ego Nick Shadow for a life of dissolution in London – The Rake’s Progress can be an opera that is easier to admire more than to really love. The symmetrical construction of the opera conforms to a predetermined order of the classical subject – a young man, coming-of-age, uncommitted to settling down to a life of domesticity in marriage and a solid career, decides to explore the endless pleasures that life offers, only to find in the end that there’s something to be said for a more simple lifestyle. It’s an A-B-A structure that is even mirrored in the structure of the three scenes in each of the three acts. It’s all very clever but a little dull and constricting, and the opera can consequently be a little static when performed.

There are however compensating factors that prevent The Rake’s Progress from being merely a pastiche that is too clever for its own good. The libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is quite beautiful – direct but allusive and elusive, knowing but hinting at deeper underlying truths. The same can be said of Stravinsky’s score, which doesn’t just reference various styles, but expands on them with extraordinary arrangements that do indeed force you to reflect on the nature of the characters as well as how their lives and relationships are constructed and revealed through opera techniques. The blending together of the libretto with the score through the singing isn’t always perfect – and the moral at the ending is a little trite (il dissoluto punito) – but there are some wonderful and dazzling ensemble pieces with duos and trios that are as good as anything by Mozart. Well, almost.

RakesProgress

What this particular Glyndebourne production has going for it as well, is of course the production by David Hockney and John Cox. If it’s a little static in places, that’s often more to do with the nature of the opera itself, which is more reflection than action, and the decision to adhere closely to the Hogarth arrangements. Every scene however is an absolute delight, breathtaking in some places, with marvellous little touches that bring out the humour of the situations well. Vladimir Jurowski treats the opera very much as a Russian work, while being mindful of its English and international aspects. These are brought out fully in the casting and the singing, which is of fine quality throughout, with Miah Persson and Topi Lehtipuu demonstrating perfect English diction. If their acting performances are unremarkable, it’s probably more a failing with the nature of the opera itself – but there are enough compensating factors in the singing, the staging and the performance to make this a highly entertaining experience.

With the kind of cross-hatching that you have in the production design, the last thing you want is aliasing in the transfer, but the transfer copes very well with only a faint hint of instability in one or two places in the textures of the costumes, particularly tweeds. It’s very minor however, and for me it just drew attention to the fact that the detail of the overall production concept is taken through to the costume design. Otherwise, the full impact of the colourful production is well captured in the High Definition transfer and in the actual filming. LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks capture the detail of the musical performance brilliantly and dynamically. Extra features include a Cast Gallery, a brief Introduction to The Rake’s Progress that contains recent interviews with Hockney and Cox about the production, and a wider look at the opera in a 12-minute Behind The Rake’s Progress featurette.