THE TALES OF HOFFMANN
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN, Opera Australia at the Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 11-22 July 2023. Photography by Keith Saunders
This new production of Jacques Offenbach’s most successful work is a co-production between OA and Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Opera National de Lyon and Fondazione Teatro la Fenice di Venezia. And it’s as lavish as such parentage might suggest, although the sectional black flooring was either dirt cheap or some kind of unfathomable joke.
From the opening moments, when a troupe of “ballerinas” thwack, thump, clunk and clomp, the floor provides an astonishing distraction that never lets up. Throughout the three-plus hours it creaks and squeaks no matter how romantic or sinister the moment. It has to be the noisiest and most distracting floor material since no one ever thought to use bubblewrap.
Other sounds are much more rewarding. Musically, these Tales of Hoffmann are sumptuous as the Chorus floods the auditorium with glorious sound and looks either amazing or weird. The principals are splendid, starting – literally – with Sian Sharp sounding divine as The Muse, an apparition in green who, given that Hoffmann is permanently munted, is possibly the spirit of absinthe.
The opera and it’s various tales begins with Olympia (Jessica Pratt), who is more sexbot than traditional doll as there’s no wind-up key. Nevertheless, the fabled “Doll Song” as performed by Pratt is an applause hog. And the star soprano takes on the multiple roles as a solo artist for the first time** since Dame Joan in the last century. And Pratt is spectacular, vocally and as an actor, making the different characters easy to pick even amid the production’s energetic confusion.
Director Damiano Michieletto, designer Paolo Fantin, and costume designer Carla Teti have gone for broke and thrown in everything but clarity. There’s a stilt-walker (ah! That’s why that doorway is giraffe height); there’s a rather appealing mouse, many oddly hirsute or bosomy school kids; some cute little ballet dancers, and a pair of adult ballet dancers. (He actually lands a jump without making a sound: a real achievement.) There’s a trio of scarlet-catsuited devil dancers sporting sequin nipple pastes who are more Harry Styles than mini-Satans, despite their horns (choreographer Chiara Vecchi). And it’s all in the cause of bringing opéra fantastique into the 21st century. Apparently.
Setting aside the tales, the company is a pleasure to listen to. Ivan Ayon Rivas has a fine, strong tenor and is excellent as the eponymous storyteller, from youthful ardour to unkempt old drunk. His nemesis Coppelius as performed by Marko Mimica is a chocolatey bass baritone of some menace. A scene-stealer on account of her stuffed Macaw is mezzo Agnes Sarkis as Nicklausse. Again, she is a ravishing singer and womanfully overcomes the burden of the dead parrot as well as a horrible costume: macaw-coloured tights, boardies and t-shirt. What?
Unfortunately, there are other uglinesses more difficult to ignore. There’s not much to be done in 2023 with a female character as a mechanical doll and man’s plaything, but it’s downright hideous, and a failure to read the global women’s room, to watch Olympia have the top of her head ripped off as she’s flung over an upper floor balcony to lie “dead”, broken, grotesque and spotlit. One couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of slain women (two in Sydney this week) who took out AVOs in vain to avoid this kind of male behaviour.
That so much of the production is posed as a kind of fever dream may amuse and divert – there was much laughter and enthusiastic applause on opening night. Yet, of itself depressing is that people (admittedly still mostly old white men and women in such an audience) are still oblivious to such disdain and cruelty to women. And this has nothing to do with Offenbach and everything to do with the creative team’s tee-hee-hee notions of fun, culminating in the momentary appearance of Stella as a – ROFL – bearded, glamorous drag queen.
Right now, in the wider world, every element of women’s lives has been invaded and demeaned by those who would have females obliterated by sexual politics, or literally obliterated by misogyny. In an arts company now led by women, it’s a damn shame to have it happen on Dame Joan’s stage.
Nevertheless, the orchestra and chorus, under the baton of Guillaume Tourniaire were as cracking hot as we have come to expect, as were baritone David Parkin and an hilarious Adam Player. Four stars for the music and performers. But to hell with being polite when women – albeit fictional – are gratuitously brutalised. Enough.
** Geraldine Turner wrote: "FYI, A number of Australian sopranos have done the four roles in Hoffmann for OA. Sutherland, in 1974, was the first, followed the following year by Joan Carden and Marilyn Richardson (who didn't transpose down the Doll Song). Deborah Riedel and Jennifer McGregor did an interesting production late 90s and later Emma Matthews as well."