November 2008


Image by B Cooper, borrowed from

I should probably say now – I have at no point in my life gone out of my way to play any Offenbach (as far as I can remember). Although I did once end up playing the can-can on the saxophone, in a big rainbow tent, for some glamorous dancing transvestite chaps. As for listening to it, I did wander along to La Belle Helene with a bunch of friends last year, and remember being bored, becoming irritated, being momentarily distracted by Toby Spence taking his trousers off (good old ENO), and wondering if I didn’t actually prefer G&S when it comes to twee nonsense. In Hoffman apparently there’s some big famous Barcarolle bit which I was supposed to recognise because is always being played on Classic FM (like I’d know!) So anyway, I had not the highest of expectations of the material. The cast, however, looked rather good, in particular Rolando Villazon in what is apparently a signature role.

The music turned out to be more enjoyable than I’d expected, which was a pleasant surprise. It was tuneful, jolly and romantic (which are not such bad things, I suppose), but did have some proper dramatic bits as well, even quite dark at times. A decent death scene or two (or three) really does improve an opera greatly. The plot, for those unfamiliar with it, involves a middle-aged alcoholic in the pub with his long-suffering best mate (who is possibly a eunuch, or a cross-dressing lesbian, or a disguised artistic muse), entertaining the general public by falling over, repeatedly cussing a bloke he doesn’t like the look of, and blabbing kiss-and-tell stories of his past lovers. (So a bit of a twat, then.) Villazon played the parts (Hoffman at different ages) extremely well, with great intensity, energy and humour – almost too over-the-top but not quite. Despite kicking off with a song mocking a person with disabilities, later on he even managed to make the twat Hoffman quite sympathetic! There has been much discussion of the health of Villazon’s voice over the last year or so, and I am pleased to report that his voice sounded warm, expressive, flexible and never strained. There are not many tenors who I can get excited about in the way I do with deeper voices, but he is one of them. Kristine Jepson sounded consistently lovely as Nicklausse the sidekick; enough so to ignore the fact that the kind costume and wig people had made her look like a 19th-century Billy Bunter schoolboy. Her acting seemed a bit on the wooden side, but it’s quite possible this was just a side effect of playing ‘straight man’ to the hyperactive Villazon.

I was also quite keen to see Gidon Saks as Lindorf and the various other ‘villains’, as he hasn’t been in London much recently, and as playing bad guys is indisputably what he does best. His singing was excellent for much of the time, for example in the genuinely alarming (and very enjoyable) Dr Miracle scenes, but a bit patchy elsewhere. I’m not particularly bothered by the odd dodgy note here and there, but there were moments of shoutiness that I did not enjoy. Acting with one’s voice is a good thing, but not at the expense of tone quality and musical line. (A personal opinion, of course.) He also did not fare too well with the costume department, in particular with Dappertutto (aka Ming the Merciless – camp in glittery black, bald head and too much eye shadow).

Of the female roles, Christine Rice stood out as Giulietta. Apart from being in gorgeous voice, for someone who plays a lot of trouser roles, she was very convincing as a beautiful and seductive sex worker. (Or is she the brothel madam? I wasn’t sure.) The production, incidentally, was of the more traditional type, in that the sets actually looked like the places indicated in the story (as opposed to random piles of rubble, forests of giant spears, or wonky boxes, for example). They were very attractive sets too, as were many of the costumes, particularly Giulietta’s nice dress and gold head-thing. Some reviewers have complained about lack of soprano-ness in Rice and Jepson’s duet, but for me it was one of the highlights. Ekaterina Lekhina was very funny as Olympia, doing a near-perfect mannequin impression, while unleashing various robotic melodic ornamentations, including a piercing top G (I think) and a highly accurate impression of a car alarm. I have to say, I was pretty unimpressed with Kate Van Kooten as Antonia. Apart from the fact that this character is, according to the programme, “Crespel’s frail daughter”, while Van Kooten had the manner of someone just off to captain the hockey team, I found her singing dull and inelegant.

Antonia wasn’t the low point of the evening, though. That honour has to go to Graham Clark as the various annoying servants, in particularly the awful Franz with his ‘tra la la’-ing, which almost had me looking around for something to throw at him to shut him up. Comedy, ha. All the other supporting roles were more than decent, in particular Matthew Rose as Crespel (another victim of the evil wigmakers – although having said that, it’s not exactly difficult to make Mr Rose look bad) and Ji-Min Park as Nathanael.

How could I finish without mentioning the orchestra? It sounded like quite a fun score to play, and I got the impression they were enjoying themselves. The ensemble had a couple of shaky moments, but it was first night, I suppose. The woodwind were stand-out, including some very nice oboe and bassoon moments, some super-precision piccolo work, and lovely, expressive, golden-toned flute playing which deserved a better part to play than that provided by Offenbach.

Image by C Barda, borrowed from

Image by C Barda, borrowed from

This was the second time I’ve seen Boris live, the last being when the Bolshoi were visiting London in 2006. I have some basic level of familiarity with the score(s), but don’t actually own a full recording yet. [Suggestions welcome!] The Bolshoi used the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, whereas the ENO chose the original Mussorgsky, so I was interested to compare. The ENO version was also an awful lot shorter – by about half! – which, I have to say, didn’t seem like a particularly brilliant idea to me. I like huge operas that take up half the day, but I also like them to have intervals, which this didn’t. I read somewhere that this current trend for no-interval performances is “to make it more like the experience of going to see a film”. If this is true, it is patronising as well as irritating. And apparently very confusing for members of the audience who did not already know the opera. My companion had no idea what was going on for a lot of the time (as, for example, there was no actual indication that the Dmitri everyone is talking about at the end is the same person as the Grigory from earlier), and because of the lack of interval, had to wait until the whole thing had finished before asking me about it! Admittedly I think he did doze off for a bit, which can’t have helped.

So, no Poland scene, for a start. I could never really see the point of shoehorning in a romantic subplot anyway, but it did have some nice music in. No stupid gnat song for the nurse, but we were still treated to the bartender’s stupid duck song. I don’t know the score well enough to say exactly what else was missing, but whatever it was, surely it would have been better to include than 10 minutes of nasty little brats tormenting a poor learning disabled bloke, while making an irritating noise with their squeaky little voices.

I realise I am sounding somewhat negative about this production. Take it within the context that going to the opera is a treat for me, and I almost always find it enjoyable overall, or can at least find many things to enjoy in any performance. The thing I enjoyed most about this performance was Brindley Sherratt’s Pimen. It’s such an unforgiving role! No action, not much in the way of acting (other than looking old and venerable), and great long rambling monologues to narrate while sitting at a desk. However, Sherratt made such a lovely sound that I could quite happily have sat and listened to Pimen rambling on for three times as long. I haven’t heard him sing for some time, and it made me very happy to do so again. One of the things I like about this opera (and Russian vocal music in general) is the preponderance of bass voices, and we also had Jonathan Veira as Varlaam and Peter Rose as Boris himself. Veira was capable and entertaining in the sort of drunk fat old lech role that John Tomlinson excels at. Rose, unfortunately, was very unsatisfactory IMO; his voice was pleasant enough, and I’m sure in other roles he might be very good; however, the Tsar should be a tragic, tormented, but still powerful character, and his scenes should be gripping. I mean, he gets to do Madness and Death, for goodness sake! Rose was none of these things, and Pimen’s history book was more gripping. Of the other roles, Gregory Turay (as Grigory/pretend Dmitri) was very good, and David Stephenson (Shuisky) and Robert Murray (simpleton, I mean, man with learning disability) both pleasant to hear. Anna Grevelius was charming in her tiny role as Boris’s younger, cross-dressing daughter whom (presumably because her dad is Tsar) everyone plays along with and pretends is a boy.

One other high point of the performance was the chorus, who made a fantastic sound. This, and the fact that their words were clearly audible, managed to distract from the fact that there was not much to look at, with them all in grubby grey, shuffling around in a wonky wooden box of a set. Yes, Covent Garden’s wonky box predilection has clearly spread to the Coliseum. It was pretty dull and drab, which I assume was the idea, but it would have been nice to see more of a difference in the royal palace scenes than just wonky wooden box With Chair. Some very nice atmospheric lighting effects on the large screen which was sometimes exposed at the back, though.

Throughout, the orchestra sounded great. Gardner directed them with great confidence and energy, and there was strong solo and ensemble playing. I could really do with listening to (and reading) the Mussorgsky and Rimsky versions to do a proper comparison, but I think the Mussorgsky has more character and spikiness, using less obvious aural textures and combinations. I certainly found the orchestra particularly enjoyable to listen to this time, which was not so much the case previously. Whoever would have thought it? A composer who knew how he wanted his own music to sound!