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Monday, February 11, 2008

CD Review: The Trials of Hoffman

Jacques Offenbach
Last summer, the Metropolitan Opera sent a letter to its subscribers, announcing that the company had cancelled its planned (and long overdue) revival of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman in favor of yet another run of the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli production of Carmen. With Hoffman (temporarily) banished from the opera house here in New York, it's good news that EMI Classics decided to reissue their 1988 Belgian recording of the opera, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling.

Fans of Hoffman know that Jacques Offenbach died four months before its premiere, living long enough to complete the piano score for the entire opera and orchestrate the prelude and the first act. However, multiple revisions, additions and subtractions by half-a-dozen well-meaning editors have left opera houses with difficult decisions to make. Here's a few of the issues facing would-be producers of Hoffman:
  • Do you leave the opening Prelude with the Muse and have the Muse and Nicklausse sung by the same mezzo-soprano?

  • The four Evil Geniuses (Coppelius, Dappertutto, Dr. Mirakle and Lindorf) are usually played by one bass-baritone. Do you have one singer quadruple in all four female leads (as Offenbach intended), or do you split the role?

  • Which order of the acts do you use? I-II-III (Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta) as the composer intended) or I-III-II (Olympia-Giulietta-Antonia) which puts the big death scene at the end?

  • Which aria for Dapertutto: the authentic "Tourne, tourne miroir" or the crowd-pleasing "Scintille, diamante?"

  • Does Giulietta die in Act III as the composer originally intended?
The Cambreling recording, made in Brussels, attempts to give the listener the best of all possible worlds. The opera is played at a slow, often stately tempo with painstaking attention to the text. Neil Shicoff gives the recorded performance of his career as Hoffman, his signature role. Jose Van Dam gives four exceptional performances as the Evil Geniuses. Both Dappertutto arias are included, with "Scintille, diamante" as an appendix.

Luciana Serra is a decidedly Italian Olympia, soaring through the doll's difficult music. As the doomed Antonia, Rosalind Plowright is in remarkable voice before her decline.. Giulietta is the indomitable Jessye Norman. (She survives in this version.) Ann Murray doubles as Nicklausse and the Muse. And character tenor Robert Tear tackles four roles also, playing Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio.

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