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Recent Opera Round-up



1. The Tales of Hoffmann, De Vlaamse Oper, Antwerp.

The Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach's final extravaganza and - as many maintain - his last-minute masterpiece, is a bizarre amalgam : Baron Munchausen meets Don Quixote, overlaid with the Faust of Goethe and Berlioz, plus a measure of Don Giovanni (the very opera which is being performed offstage throughout the action). Hoffmann himself is an archetypal Schumann-cum-Heine romantic, pathologically incapable of settling down : half a dozen other E.T.A. Hoffmannesque vignettes and weirdos are woven into the action.

The Tales of Hoffmann, De Vlaamse Oper, Antwerp

Charlotte Hellekant (Nicklausse), Laurent Naouri (Coppélius)
and Gerard Powers (Hoffmann)

Given the mix-and match about Offenbach's order of scenes, which Ernest Guiraud had to lick posthumously into shape, Hoffmann needs partiuclarly skilful pasting together onstage. De Vlaamse (Flemish) Opera's new production in Antwerp and Gent by the inventive, imaginative and incisive Scottish director David McVicar - who staged Flander's Idomeneo (following his award-winning UK triumph with Mozart's opera) two seasons ago - with designs by Roni Toren, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and lit by Tina MacHugh, starts off in a cramped, deliberately claustrophobic bedroom-cum-living room, a tip from which emerge Nicklausse (the characterful Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant) and a bedraggled Hoffmann (Gerard Powers, a vocally powerful late replacement for Russian Bolshoi tenor, Mikhail Dawidoff), selfconsciously crumpling up and discarding sheets of rejected verse : you can almost smell the coffee stains and the untouched washing-up.

The Tales of Hoffmann, De Vlaamse Oper, Antwerp

Gerard Powers (Hoffmann) and Charlotte Hellekant (Nicklausse)

This tiny room enlarges to become, with variants, the setting for each ensuing scene, as if to suggest each is a compartment of Hoffmann's packed psyche, or else it an offshoot of them. Each main scene, presented by McVicar and conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus in the order Olympia (the doll)-Antonia (Rat Crespel's daughter)-Giulietta (the Venice scene), is accorded visual touches that intermesh it with the rest. There is a modicum of McVicar's characteristic surreal fingerprints, from the changing perspective of wall-mounted pictures and the jumble of reflecting overhead glass in the Giulietta scene to a corpse - an anticipation of Hoffmann's desperate act of Venetian street-killing - that looks like a corner of an eerie Paul Delvaux painting, or a refugee from David Pountney's surrealist Julietta (Martinu) for Opera North.

The Tales of Hoffmann, De Vlaamse Oper, Antwerp

Laura Claycomb (Olympia) and François-Nicolas Geslot (Cochénille)

The tragic, and ultimately unavailing, efforts of Crespel (the stylish performer Marc Claesen) to stop his daughter singing take place in a vast, desolate, emptied-out version of the initial set, by now enlarged to proscenium size, with door handles that hover over Antonia's head like something out of Tomb Thumb the Great or The Incredible Shrinking Man. McVicar here keeps the action deliberately spare, as the preceding scene, with Coppélius (Laurent Naouri) and Spalanzani (Jan Caals) in full flow, is consciously frenetic and riddled with stage business, chorus bustle and outrageous colour.

The Tales of Hoffmann, De Vlaamse Oper, Antwerp

Mireille Delunsch (Antonia) and Laurent Naouri (Docteur Miracle)

Two of the female roles are sung by Americans. Laura Claycomb's Olympia is sweet and shrill; Stephanie Friede's Giulietta is like a rich and full-bodied wine; but the voice of the evening - Gerard Powers' vocally splendid - though, given limited rehearsal time, visually inept - Hoffmann apart - was the French soprano Mireille Delunsch, fresh from her appearance at Vlaamse Opera in Mark Minkowski's acclaimed reading of Rameau's Platée - an Antonia of especially warm, plaintive and gorgeous voice, whose interplay with Claesen's Crespel was therefore all the more affecting. The doubled parts - François-Nicolas Geslot as an amiably slouchy (and very Offenbachian) Andres and Frantz, and Naouri's chameleon-like, sinuous magus of a Coppélius-cum-Dr.Miracle, lifted the acting stakes. Casadesus drew some periodic bursts of magical playing from the workhorse Flanders Opera orchestra, in particular the lower strings and the scattered cello solos.

Copyright © 2 April 2000 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK