Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tales of Hoffmann, Tales of Villazón

This brief Festspiele return of Les Contes d’Hoffmann to the Bayerische Staatsoper was marked by major cancellations, notably Diana Damrau as the three heroines (preggers) and conductor Constantine Carydis (presumably not preggers). Ironically, canceler par excellence Rolando Villazón actually showed up and sang the title role; sadly I spent most of the performance wishing he hadn’t. It was a bumpy ride, and the production isn’t Jones’s best, but the three excellent new women, Brenda Rae, Olga Mykytenko, and Anna Virovlansky, oddly shifted the focus of the opera.
Offenbach, Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/19/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Marc Piollet

Inszenierung Richard Jones
Bühne Giles Cadle
Kostüme Buki Shiff
Choreographie Lucy Burge
Licht Mimi Jordan Sherin

Olympia Brenda Rae
Antonia Olga Mykytenko
Giulietta Anna Virovlansky
Cochenille / Pitichinaccio / Frantz Kevin Conners
Lindorf / Coppélius / Dapertutto / Miracle John Relyea
Nicklausse/Muse Angela Brower
Stimme aus dem Grab Okka von der Damerau
Hoffmann Rolando Villazón
Spalanzani Ulrich Reß
Nathanael Dean Power
Hermann Tim Kuypers
Schlémil Christian Rieger
Crespel / Luther Christoph Stephinger
Wilhelm Andrew Owens
Watching Rolando Villazón in Les Contes d’Hoffmann was sadly similar to seeing Natalie Dessay in La traviata. The hard-living, slightly manic writer might seem to be a perfect character for Villazón, who has been through a lot and has always been slightly manic. But alas, experiencing artistic difficulties does not assist in rendering artistic difficulties vocally. His voice is barely recognizable. I’d actually only heard him live once before, back in 2006, shortly before his vocal crisis started. But I remember a vibrant tenor, tense and pushed but exciting. Now the lower register is still tense and has some of the same tonal quality while the upper half is weak and deployed only with extreme caution. I found moments of this performance bordered on the grotesque, when he was putting in so much bodily effort, overacting so much, but the voice simply failed to back him up.

Richard Jones sets the entire opera as a flashback in what might be Stella’s dressing room. The Muse is no more than a double for Hoffmann himself (poor mezzo Angela Brower had to don Villazónian eyebrows). The bar emerges by magic, populated by an identically-dressed chorus of pipe-puffing flaneurs, some of whom who follow the action in every scene. The furniture of the room only slightly rearranges itself for each tale, tying them together to show how Hoffmann finally got to such a pessimistic state. (The loud wallpaper, however, does change, justifying my nickname for him, Wallpaper Jones, yet again.) Hoffmann’s first love, when he is still in short pants, is a crush on the Barbie-like Olympia (her blue dress seemingly based on Disney’s Cinderella), decked out in bright colors and childlike décor. Antonia is the victim of his teenaged romanticism run amok, with all her passion going towards the wrong people. Giulietta wears a kind of transparent dress and inhabits a surreal world of pure lust, her room equipped with a giant shaving mirror for stealing men’s reflections. At the end, they unconvincingly surround Hoffmann and salute, of course Twue Wuv the entertainment value of Hoffmann’s tales.

This production does some things well, best of all tying together the different episodes. But it doesn’t do much with the villains at all, and John Relyea didn’t have much stature in any of the roles. It moves along, but in coherence and inventiveness falls below the standard I expect of Jones. I've seen worse Hoffmanns, or rather Hoffmänner, for example at the Met, but it's not the most exciting. (Edition notes: The ordering Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta is not universal but I think is considered the more Urtext-adjacent one, and this production also is for a coloratura Giulietta and does not include the big ensemble version of the Barcarolle. The program says the score is “based” on the Kaye edition, but not that it uses it exclusively.)

The production was designed for Diana Damrau playing all the women (she’s in these photos), but here was performed with three different sopranos. Personally, I prefer this option (I believe some academic opinions claim Offenbach never envisioned a single-soprano version, FWIW), because few sopranos can convince vocally in all three roles and I like the contrast. Here there was a shift in the drama as well. With a weak Hoffmann and Jones’s flaneurs, the focus switched from the icky “three women in one” thing to the way society controls and oppresses the various women, from the admiration of Olympia’s mechanical and yet feminine charms to the put-upon Antonia to the utterly helpless Giulietta. Hoffmann is less a victim of feminine wiles than a witness to patriarchy in action.

Fellow audience members seemed to find conductor Marc Piollet a major improvement over fall’s apparently very slow Carydis, and he did lead with zippiness. The chorus and orchestra, however, wasn’t quite prepared to follow him. Many of the choruses were alarmingly scrappy and the violins in the Olympia act were a mess. The soloists had an easier time. Villazón had his best outing in the Antonia act, where some of his middle-voice phrases had an appealing warmth. John Relyea as the villains did not make much of an impression, sounding deep but exceedingly wobbly and making no real distinctions between the roles—perhaps that was a dramatic point, but if so I didn’t get it.

The real star of the show might have been Angela Brower as the Muse. Her voice might not be very French—actually, no one in this production’s was, so whatever—but it has a pure, clear strength that is even through all the registers and fills the theater beautifully. I hadn’t heard any of the three women replacing Damrau before and found them all promising and interesting.  Brenda Rae as Olympia sang with bell-like tone with a nice warmth up to the top. While her first aria had a few slips of rhythm, her waltz was quite precise, had some impressive high interpolations, and showed real spirit and humor. Olga Mykytenko might be a lyric soprano, but as Antonia she wielded her strong, slightly steely voice with a blunt force more reminiscent of La Gioconda. It’s a powerful instrument and she uses it excitingly, if not always with the greatest musical delicacy. As pure voice goes the pick of the three was Anna Virolansky’s Giulietta, sung with round and sweet tone as well as agility in the coloratura. Supporting roles featured various Bay Staats regulars. I’m not sure if Frantz’s aria really works if you sing it as nicely as Kevin Conners did, and I’ve seen it much funnier. As Crespel, Chistoph Stephinger may have outsung Relyea.

Hoffmann is an opera of almost Don Giovanni-like complexity in the number of moving parts and dramatic problems. (By the way, I think it is also one of the most underrated of scores. Offenbach is an incredibly wonderful composer, and this one is a troublesome masterpiece, on a level with Carmen.) This one was problematic in some big ways, but there were things to like too.

Excerpt (Kleinzach), where Villazon sounds more even than he did in person:

Documentary (featuring Rolando Villazon's amusing German):

All photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Villazon's singing (or non-singing rather) became increasingly excruciating to listen to as the evening went on, hightened even further by having heard Kaufmann's immaculate singing the previous evening. I was shocked that Villazon went on stage in such vocal condition. What will be with him? I wonder if he is aware of how bad it was. He was so clearly struggling, it was almost tragic to witness his decline, him a shadow of what he used to be. :-(

Siggy said...

Last night I heard Villazon singing the Kleinzach aria at the Domingo Operalia concert in London. It was not pretty to say the least.

And unfortunatly this was only highlighted by having Joseph Calleja follow him onstage and sing in stunning form.

Anonymous said...

Well judging by that video, I think he sounds great! Musical flair, vocal charisma, moving sense of clownish self-disgust. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if someone who has had such bad luck in his health might have extreme highs and lows. Some singers don't reach every part of a venue either, which can be strange.

Anonymous said...

Saw Villazon in this last November and he gave a great performance so maybe you caught him on a bad night. I doubt if this is ideal repertoire vocally but astonishing stage presence and artistry.

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