Robert Carsen’s production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann does a very decent job of presenting this rather muddled and overly long piece. He sets it in and around a production of Don Giovanni in which Hoffmann’s current infatuation, Stella, is singing Donna Anna. There are several quite clever DG references scattered around. By and large it works and is one of the better “theatre in theatre” treatments that I’ve seen.
The prologue, after a sparely staged allegorical bit with the muse in a white dress with lyre, is, of course, set in a bar. The chorus is a mixture of ordinary people off the street and the chorus from a hyper traditional production of Don Giovanni. We seem to be in the the third quarter of the 20th century or thereabouts. Hoffmann throws himself around in the Kleinzack aria and everything is quite animated.
Act 1 moves us to, I guess, the prop shop. Olympia is a radio controlled doll. At some point her dress gets ripped off and we get a nude doll humping Hoffmann before Coppelius does his thing and reappears carrying bits of the dismembered doll.
Act 2 probably gets the most effective staging. We are in an opera house. Most of the action takes place in the pit but Dr. Miracle is up on stage in front of a closed curtain. When Antonia’s mother appears, the curtain goes up on the graveyard scene from Don Giovanni. The mother sings her aria and then takes a divaish farewell. Antonia appears on the stage to make her final, fatal exit. The chorus are now the orchestra, conducted demoniacally by Miracle.
Act 3 is a bit lame. Giulietta’s bordello is the audience area of the opera house. The seats move right and left in a sort of contraflow (there had to be lines of chairs in a Carsen production). An orgy is going on. Stuff happens. The duel is really lame; perhaps, again, invoking a trad production of Don Giovanni, and Giulietta and her pimp leave via the orchestra pit (the real one).
The epilogue, at least on DVD, opens with washed out flashbacks during the entr’acte. Then we are back in the bar until Lindorf leaves with Stella and the Muse reclaims Hoffmann on an empty stage. It mostly works.
Musically it’s pretty solid. Neil Shicoff is a very compelling Hoffmann. he’s a good singer and as good an actor. He plays the role mostly as the disillusioned artist who has lost his way and it’s effective. Bryn Terfel plays the villains and it’s a very typical villainous Bryn performance. If you like his Scarpia you’ll like this. Susanne Mentzer is a very capable Muse/Nicklausse. Of the three soprano roles, Ruth Ann Swenson’s Antonia is the best sung and it’s very good indeed. The very decorative Beatrice Uria-Monzon acts well as Giulietta but doesn’t have as much to do vocally. Desirée Rancatore is OK as Olympia but I’ve seen it sung and acted better, notably by both Adriana Chuchman and Kathleen Kim but I don;t think either performance is available on DVD. Jesus Lopez-Cobos gives a robust and effective reading of the score.
Video direction is by François Roussillon and I think it’s one of his weaker efforts. There are far too many super close-ups, many of them of someone who isn’t singing. Much of the time it’s quite hard to figure out what is going on. Admittedly he’s not helped by a big, mostly dimly lit, stage, which doesn’t look great when he does give a wider shot. The picture, generally, is not the best. The sound is a bit problematic too. The DTS track is encoded at ridiculously low volume. Even with the sound turned up higher than I’ve ever gone it wasn’t loud and it was a bit muffled. The LPCM stereo is decidedly better though not particularly brilliant. There are English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese subtitles. There are no extras but the documentation is by Carsen himself and worth reading.