Offenbach - Les Contes d'Hoffmann / Alagna, van Dam, Dessay, Vaduva, Jo, Lascarro, Dubosc, Ragon, Sénéchal, Bacquier, Lamprecht, Nagano
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Of all the revisionist Hoffmanns, this one is the best, using the latest (and one trusts) last version of Michael Kaye's edition, based on sketches recently discovered for the unfinished opera. Most of the changes are in the Giulietta act; it now tracks better dramatically, and unlike some restoration attempts, its length is sensible. In the title role, Roberto Alagna is full of imaginative touches of characterization, singing the famous Kleinzach song with an intentional vocal roughness in a worthy effort to convey the Hoffmann's debauched state. As the mechanical doll Olympia, Natalie Dessay proves she's not only a phenomenal singer but a great comedienne. Kent Nagano deploys his Lyon Opera forces with great stylistic authority. --David Patrick Stearns
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Top Customer Reviews
I wouldn't be surprised if Nagano's very rapid pacing was to hide Alagna's flaws. I like a faster paced "Hoffmann," and with the added material it's not only preferable but maybe necessary, but this is ridiculous, with no consideration for which passages should be slower, which should pick up the pace. It's as if an LP is being played halfway between the right and wrong speed. Certainly Van Dam sings in better voice on the Shicoff recording. I wonder if conductor and cast are doing their best to hide Alagna's weaknesses?
Everything else about the recording is fine. I agree that sound effects should have been included. I'm not sorry about the loss of "Scintille Diamant" and think the Sextet should have been cut as well. Not because there is a thing wrong with them. They are both beautiful. But the former is an interpolation Offenbach never intended for this opera, and the latter is a variation on the Barcarolle created years after Offenbach's death. They simply don't belong.
But it's all futile because Alagna spoils everything.
Hoffmann is a work in which conductor and producer have a free hand, as they must decide between a dialogue and a recitative version, how much of the Prologue to restore, how important to make the role of Nicklausse. The Giulietta act is also problematic, being the least "authentic" of the three. To follow Kaye and even Oeser in their proposals, it would be apparent that the three female roles were to be sung by a single soprano.
In this Erato recording, made over an 18-month period, we have the impeccable José van Dam as the villain, Natalie Dessay, Leontina Vaduva and Sumi Jo as Hoffman's three loves and Gabriel Bacquier, Michel Sénéchal and Gilles Ragon. Kent Nagano and the Lyon Opera Orchestra offer excellent, if too speedy, support. Nagano maintained a light touch throughout, but sounds a tad rushed overall and undesirably hurried in some crucial places.
Sumi Jo copies Natalie Dessay's cadenza note for note, both are extraordinary as they hit an unwritten high A flat, Jo having a fuller role in which to make an even greater impact, though both ladies are small-voiced. Vaduva is not impeccable vocally, but her commitment makes this an excellent rendition of a role which has rarely been well served on recording.
Probably the major problems lie with Hoffmann and his muse - the Nicklausse of Catherine Dubos has a voice that is almost totally colourless in a role which demands a greater presence than she is able to provide. The main problem is, however, the speed and the title role sung by Roberto Alagna. While Nagano aided his singing greatly by adopting a brisker pace than is desirable, Alagna's singing is at best workman-like. He does not scoop as in so many other places, but the voice does not float, often quite hard-pressed for expressiveness that tires the listener after a short while.
This is clearly an uneven set, and though certainly contains some delights (mainly by the lady-lovers), overall does not make a compelling set.
A performance or recording of this work has always been a lottery-the music included, the casting (one soprano or three), order of acts, changes in plot, orchestration and inclusion of purely musical numbers vary widely and always have. The problem is not that Offenbach did not complete the work, though a fair amount was either only part or un-orchestrated before his death-he in fact completed enough material to have 4 separate versions at least, but none of it was co-ordinated and we have no idea what the final version would have been. We can be sure that had he lived, Offenbach would have adapted the work from performance to performance as he did with his other stage works.
We can be sure of certain constants-the work was originally conceived and composition began as a “Grand Opera” with no spoken dialogue, a very dark plot and a Baritone cast as Hoffmann.
Midway through composition, the Opera Company involved went bust, and the work was immediately adopted by the Opera Comique in Paris-this meant a lighter plot, spoken dialogue and Hoffmann cast as a tenor for their star artist of the day!
All of this material-in several versions and sketches- survived and continues to be unearthed even today.
The work most of us know and love is a confection of music all composed by Offenbach, though not necessarily for this particular work, adapted, orchestrated and edited by many hands, most notably Ernest Guiraud and has evolved into what we think of as the “Choudens” Edition.
In 1976 the musicologist Fritz Oeser produced an expanded revised version which reinstated most the music for Muse/Nicklausse omitted in the Choudens, reconstructed the prologue and postlude to great effect, but sensibly kept all the “unauthentic” but popular numbers of the Choudens version, even though many lost repeats and purely orchestral renditions. For me this is THE preferred version and can be heard to great effect in the live Orfeo recording of the 1981 Salzburg Production under James Levine and which I have reviewed.
This version has been adopted by many leading houses, including Vienna and La Scala Milan.
Scholarly research continued until in 1999 a new totally revised version based entirely on material incontrovertibly by Offenbach was revealed by American Scholar Michael Kaye, the version that is presented here based on performances in Lyon, and subsequently adopted in Hamburg.
Kaye admits that it is not an “authentic version”, but is a performing version based on material certainly by Offenbach, in his orchestrations wherever possible, and which Kaye believes were intend for the final version. There are some radical plot changes too, particularly in the Giulietta Act, here dubbed Act 3 of 5 Act work, all options considered by Offenbach.
I will end this homily by recounting that in 2006, James Levine planned a spectacular new production at the Met, and entered into a series of meetings and consultations with Michael Kaye and studying his revised score much to the approval of the musical “intelligentsia.”
Finally, Maestro Levine announced that he would be conducting-the Choudens version with most of the Oeser additions but keeping all the repeats and the orchestral playing of Olympia’s Waltz and the Barcarolle Intermezzo!!!
A scandalised musical press demanded to know how he could be so cavalier, to which Maestro Levine replied “Quite simply, I like the music much better and so do my paying audience.”
That sums up entirely my reaction to this set-it has its moments-there are about 3 of them-but beyond that it turns this glorious work into a dull, tiresome slog.
Certainly the version used, no matter how close to Offenbach’s intentions contributes to the lack of enthusiasm, but Nagano’s unidiomatic conducting, the dull recording of the orchestra in an unflattering acoustic and the lack of involvement of many of the cast are all major factors too.
There are certainly some surprises-the big Sextet in “Act 3” was generally believed to be by that prolific composer “Anonymous”, but Kaye believes it to be echt-Offenbach and it is included, though much earlier in this interminable Act as it is here performed. Lovers of the Barcarolle theme will be delighted-itself of course conscripted by Offenbach from his early work “The Rhine Fairies”-as it is repeated many times and in many guises to the extent that it outstays its welcome considerably.
There is of course no version at all of “Scintille Diamant”, certainly by Offenbach but from another work.
In fact, if the Muse was the big casualty in the Choudens version, then it is the 3 villains who suffer excision in this version, though Lindorf gets an expanded role.
There is far too much music included that is effectively orchestrated recitative, and which one feels sure that Offenbach, ever a man of the theatre, would have edited severely and that fact that it is “genuine” does not make it enjoyable.
The cast is an excellent one overall, with Natalie Dessay at her very best as Olympia producing high notes from the stratosphere, Alagna is a fine ardent Hoffmann with idiomatic French and ringing tone, van Dam is still good in the somewhat stifled versions of roles he performed so well in earlier years, and Sumi Jo sings well in the revised Giulietta Act, which now scored for a coloratura soprano includes a fizzing demonstration aria which I could happily hear again. However, she sounds totally uninvolved in the part!
All of the acts vary from the established versions, and rarely to the benefit of the work. The extra music for Olympia and Hoffmann to her waltz theme is welcome, but that act is shorn of much is that is really enjoyable, as are the others.
The recording favours the voices, the orchestra sounds dry and dull, does not play particularly well, and Nagano, a conductor I generally admire, seems out of sympathy with this work as his interpretation varies from flaccid to nervous staccato rhythms where they shouldn’t be.
Of course, there are many passages to enjoy-but even more not to, and the familiar music that is omitted is sorely missed. Maestro Levine knows a thing or two!
Understandably, anyone as fascinated by this work as I am will want to explore this version, but most of the experience that results is academic rather than enjoyable.
Those looking a recording of Hoffmann that they know and love, or think they might, are steered towards the Orfeo Live Recording, for me best of all, and if applause etc. is too much to take, the Cambreling recording is excellent as is the Sutherland/Bonynge.
Those of an adventurous bent could try a fabulous recording in German-not as unidiomatic as you might think-he was after all Jakob Hoffmann from Köln in at that time Prussia, and his works were sung in German under his direction in Vienna-which can be found at bargain price on Electrola and features Jerusalem, Hannah Schwartz, Julia Varady, Norma Sharpe and Fischer-Dieskau.
Avoid (sadly), the Cluytens, Ozawa (ghastly), Tate (another “authentic” version even more dull than this one) and of course the one under review. The reissue packaging includes summaries of what are now designated the Five Acts, but there is no libretto and I surmise that there is precious little chance of obtaining one. Only for the incurably curious!
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