Offenbach, Jacques


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.

UnderworldJacques Offenbach - Orpheus in the Underworld

NI Opera & Scottish Opera, 2011 | Derek Clark, Oliver Mears, Rory Bremner, Nicholas Sherratt, Jane Harrington, Máire Flavin, Ross McInroy, Brendan Collins, Daire Halpin, Gavin Ring, Maire Claire Breen, Olivia Ray, Christopher Diffey | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, 31 October 2011

Written in 1858, Offenbach’s first full-length comic operetta was by no means intended to be merely just a retelling of the classic Greek myth, not indeed even just a satire on the use of the subject in so many operas, but it was also intended to be a satire of the times. Who better then to take on the necessary task of updating it for our own times (it’s hardly going to be meaningful to parody 19th century Parisian society), while retaining all the risqué humour and the political edge than impressionist comedian and satirist Rory Bremner for this joint production between Scottish Opera and Northern Ireland Opera of Orpheus in the Underworld (’Orphée aux enfers’).

You might think that celebrity marriages, society scandal and gossip were only a recent phenomenon introduced by tabloid newspapers and the publication of ‘Hello’ and ‘OK’, but no, it was clearly as much a subject of interest in Offenbach’s time as it doubtless was long before that, and a subject just as worthy of sending up. Here, Eurydice is enjoying life as a WAG, her husband the celebrity musician Orpheus (although she has a severe allergic reaction to his music), and Bremner’s witty working of the libretto captures all the glamour as well as the vacuousness of the celebrity lifestyle. Even though both Eurydice and Orpheus can’t stand each other any longer and are cheating on each other, they are concerned about Public Opinion (a character in the opera), and about what a divorce would do to their reputations.

Underworld

Unfortunately, Eurydice’s gym instructor with whom she is having an affair is not Aristaeus, as she believes, but Pluto, the God of the Underworld in disguise. The collusion between Pluto and Orpheus isn’t really brought out in this production, but in any case the end result is the same – an unfortunate “accident” that kills Eurydice, allowing Pluto to whisk her off to Hell. Public Opinion is not impressed, although Orpheus doesn’t seem too concerned, and she insists that he set matters right and appeal to the Gods on Olympus. They’re a decadent bunch but rather fed-up with the high-life and the meaningless little affairs that they’ve been carrying on, so the idea of slumming it in Hell on a rescue mission to recover Eurydice sounds like fun to them. Apollo, who can’t keep it in his pants, as we all know, also sees the chance of upstaging an old rival by stealing Eurydice for himself right from under Pluto’s nose and on his own turf.

Off they go, partying in the Underworld, dancing the Can-Can (the famous music of the Moulin Rouge indeed originating from this Offenbach operetta), to such lively arrangements, sordid liaisons and bitter rivalry, that Orpheus in the Underworld has all the ingredients for a classic opera plot, if it’s not exactly the way the classical subject is more often played out. Not least of the imaginative arrangements in this humorous treatment is Apollo, disguised as a giant fly, getting it on in a vibrating buzzing way with Eurydice. Perhaps surprisingly, such racy material and irreverence is all there in Offenbach’s original work, and – without wishing to take anything away from Bremner’s often funny and cleverly rhyming English update – it only takes a tweak or two to spice it up with some modern pop-culture references (and some local topical ones, depending on the venue).

Underworld

Still, that’s making it all sound a little easier than it really is. In order to carry off this kind of comic opera, you not only need good performers who can act as well as sing, but they also need to have a good sense of comic timing and rapport with each other. If you have that – and there’s no doubt that this was certainly the case in this production – when combined with the zippy, witty and dazzling arrangements from Offenbach that belie the apparent lightness of the material, you have a winning combination. Surprisingly, Orpheus isn’t one of the major characters in the opera, but Nicholas Sherratt worked well alongside Jane Harrington’s terrific characterisation of Eurydice (by way perhaps of Katie Price and Victoria Beckham). Handling the comedy acting and the singing parts with equal aplomb, she was a delight whenever she was on the stage. The meatier roles however were given over to Brendan Collins and Gavin Ring as Apollo and Pluto, who both managed to strike the right tone throughout, as well as carry off the more outrageous moments of comic interplay. The all-important satirical sense of moral outrage mixed with salacious prying and interference was brilliantly brought out in Máire Flavin’s schoolmarmish Public Opinion, but all the cast fully entered into the spirit of the piece.

Conducted by Derek Clark, the chamber arrangement played by the NI Opera Orchestra worked perfectly with the intimacy of the venue at Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill, but with appropriate zest and timing that fully supported the outrageous on-stage activities. Following the Northern Ireland tour, the production travels to the Young Vic in London for a number of dates between the 1st and 10th December and this is one show that is well worth catching if you can-can.

OtelloJacques Offenbach - Les Brigands

Opéra Comique, Paris | François-Xavier Roth, Macha Makeieff and Jérôme Deschamps, Éric Huchet, Julie Boulianne, Daphné Touchais, Franck Leguérinel, Philippe Talbot, Francis Dudziak, Martial Defontaine, Fernand Bernardi, Löic Félix, Léonard Pezzino | Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique, Paris, France - 29 June 2011

With a few notable exceptions in the bel canto repertoire, comic opera, buffa, and particularly operetta, have never been taken seriously by lovers of the more traditional romantic, dramatic and tragic opera. Comedy, of course, shouldn’t be taken seriously, but it is nonetheless another aspect of life that opera is equally as good as representing, and it can be no less intelligent in this form, and no less incisive and satirical on social and political issues – sometimes even moreso than earnest attempts at political commentary.

But let’s not get carried away too soon. Offenbach’s Les Brigands (1869) – one of the composer’s lesser known operettas, certainly not well known outside France – is first and foremost a sparkling, bright entertainment set to catchy tunes, full of humorous incident, intrigue and dressing-up in disguises. Notionally drawn from a work by Friedrich Schiller, it taps into a popular setting of bandits, smugglers and gypsies that would reach its peak in Bizet’s Carmen (1875). In fact, the first laugh of the evening at this production of Les Brigands at the Opéra Comique in Paris was raised from the outset, as the orchestra launched straight into the overture from Carmen before descending into chaos as the fake conductor’s ruse was discovered. It was an appropriate opening for an operatta that rather knowingly plays with the conventions of the artform, but not at all in a deprecating way.

Brigandes

The setting for Les Brigands is, after all, the geographically impossible location of the mountains that border Spain and Italy, where a political alliance is to be made between a Princess of the Court of Grenada and the Duke of Mantua. When the notorious brigand Falsacoppa and his gang get wind of a dowry of three million that comes with the alliance, they come up with a plan to capture the Spanish party and pass themselves off as the royal entourage, having substituted a picture of Falsacoppa’s daughter Fiorella (who just happened to recently have her portrait done in a fancy gown), delivered to Italy by a messanger. This scheme proves to be more complicated than they initially thought, as the brigands have to hold-up the staff at the inn where the Spanish royal party are due to arrive, disguise themselves as hoteliers, and then as carabinieri when they unexpectedly turn up, and finally as the Spanish, before making their way to Mantua.

It’s all played as a tremendous farce (every time a gun is fired in the air, it invariably brings down a bird, and on one occasion a rabbit), making great fun at the expense of the carabinieri whose loud boots ensure that they always arrive too late (“nous arrivons toujours trop tard” – the most famous and memorable tune of the opera, reprised at the end of each of the three acts), at the exaggerated Flamenco gestures and hissing speech of the Spanish (who insist on claiming that they are real Spanish, which distinguishes them from fake Spanish), and at the conventions of operetta comedy itself, with multiple disguises within disguises (and even one breeches role to complicate matters further). The staging in this production by Macha Makeieff and Jérôme Deschamps (a revival of their 1993 production for the Bastille), using old-style painted backdrops and generic costumes, was most effective in conveying the necessary comic tone. The stage was often populated by up to fifty people and by numerous live animals that includes donkeys and hens running around, yet it never appeared cluttered.

Brigandes

It’s easy to dismiss Les Brigands as low farcical entertainment, but the skill with which the situation in the operetta is arranged and performed (there are no great virtuoso singing performances here, but it’s played with verve and gusto by all the main roles), the drive of the score (full of can-can style jaunty rhythms), and the playing out of the clever libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the librettists for Bizets Carmen), reveals great sophistication. Not only is it in tune with the political and social climate at the end of the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, making reference to the financial scandals of the time which has resonance today (emphasised at one point when the coffers are revealed to be empty with a distainful interjection of ‘Banquiers!’), but Offenbach’s work, and that of the French opera-comique, has a quintessential French quality that one doesn’t find elsewhere, and which – judging by its reception at the Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique on a hot evening at the end of June – is still as thoroughly entertaining and accessible today.