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.