Les Contes d’Hoffmann @ Lyon Opera

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Googling “ugliest opera house” doesn’t yield anything interesting. Surprisingly. From the lovely neoclassical facade and foyer from the 1831 Lyon opera house building, one would never imagine the  monstrosity hidden behind it. Totally excavated, filled with an almost surreal view of escalators, the totally black interior is, in my opinion, an example of architecture that should be condemned to eternal darkness. I could not have described the eyesore better than the article which the journalist Michael White wrote for the Telegraph: the first time I’ve ever spent half an opera interval queuing for the loo – a penance normally reserved for women at theatrical events, and I wish I could explain my experience of it here as something to do with French zeal for gender equality. But no, it’s just a piece of bad design.
The Lyon Opera had an architectural makeover in 1993 courtesy of the ultra-fashionable Jean Nouvel, turning it into something that feels like a 1980s gay bar, should you recognise that genre. Low black ceilings, low dark lighting, black floors, black walls… black is the undoubted theme. The audience stumble round trying to find the black doors that will give them access to black corridors, black escalators… and black porcelain toilets in black cubicles. Which is the rule even for men: the place is far too chic to have urinals, hence the queues.
Add in the fact that the (black) auditorium seats are uncomfortable, the one-way escalator systems for moving people around the buildings are crazy, and the cloakroom a long-distance running track for the poor people who man it (manning it what’s more, in a uniform of hugely flapping, tent-like trousers [black, of course] that would make George Clooney look camp and inhibit all normal movement) and you realise with a sigh that the whole place is a triumph of style over practicality.(http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/michaelwhite/100059887/how-an-opera-house-in-france-is-turning-darkness-into-light/)
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Anywho… Les Contes d’Hoffmann….an opéra fantastique that reunites three unfortunate love-stories: The doll Olympia, the dying singer Antonia and the Venetian courtesan Giulietta. All loved by Hoffmann, they all end tragically. Since Offenbach died even before the orchestration, too many geniuses laid hand on the score and started the cuts, additions, changes, reversal of order, spoken dialogues vs recitative, changes to the story etc etc etc. The Lyon opera house opted for spoken dialogues, the death of Giulietta and the cut of “Scintille diamant” and the septet (which is not by Offenbach anyway but still a lovely piece of music). The mise en scene was the re-dusted one by Pelly which he created for Lyon in 2005. Although at times a bit too minimal (Venice is relegated to two gondola-imitating sofa’s and two breezy-translucent curtains), it manages, especially in the most compelling and convincing Antonia act, to present a haunted house-like feeling with its moving stairs, folding walls, rooms that appear and disappear, etc.

The title role was interpreted by John Osborn, who I tend to find wonderful in (almost) everything he sings. His no-safety net-delivery of Raoul in Les Huguenots a few years back took my breath away. In Lyon I found him a bit distant in Kleinzach’s song. As the evening went on he gained part of his ardour and energy that I like so much about him but he was generally not as expressive as in other roles I heard him in.

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Patrizia Ciofi (who was planned to alternate with Desirée Rancatore but eventually ended up singing almost all performances) sang all of Hoffmann’s women. Olympia’s coloratura were not as sparkling as she could have done a few years ago but I liked Ciofi’s actorial interpretation, and her rendering of Antonia was very moving and musically very convincing.

Laurent Alvaro sang the villains quite well with a generous voice and the minor roles were also well cast. My slight disappointment was Angelique Noldus as Nicklausse, a barely audible voice and unconvincing interpretation of Hoffmann’s companion. The biggest disappointment, however, was Ono’s direction. Ono completely lacked tension, and at times inappropriately paused or slowed down until loosing the musical flow, droning down the opera in shallow routine. Even the most gripping moments came out boring.

Direction musicale-Kazushi Ono, Mise en scène et costumes-Laurent Pelly, Remise en forme du livret et dramaturgie-Agathe Mélinand, Décors-Chantal Thomas, Lumières-Joël Adam, Réalisation vidéo-Charles Carcopino, Hoffmann-John Osborn, Olympia/Giulietta/Antonia-Patrizia Ciofi, Nicklausse/Muse-Angelique Noldus, Lindorf/Coppélius/Dapertutto/Docteur Miracle-Laurent Alvaro, Andrès/Cochenille/Pitichinaccio/Frantz-Cyrille Dubois, Spalanzani/Nathanaël -Carl Ghazorossian, Hermann/Schlemil-Christophe Gay, La Mère-Marie Gautrot, Lyon, 19-12-13

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