Few operas demand as rich a palette of imaginative invention as Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which is drawn from the stories of the eponymous E. T. A. Hoffmann, Germany’s supreme Romantic fabulist. The action moves from a tavern to a mad scientist’s laboratory to a ghost-haunted villa to a palazzo in Venice, each locale populated by a distinctive slate of archetypes and grotesques. Ironies abound, melodrama raises its head, and tragedy bleeds through, as well. In a context of pure fantasy, each note must ring true in its turn.
The Zurich Opera’s recent streaming premiere of a new production by the house’s general director Andreas Homoki came up aces on every trick. What bold, uncluttered stage pictures! Against a black background, a tilted platform patterned in black-and-white diamonds serves as the arena for fateful encounters of actors who simply pop with theatrical color and life. Every costume tells a story, and so do the hairstyles. Mostly in the shadows, mimes sketch in the societal ambience, cheering, jeering, or indifferent, like so many marionettes.
In an assured role debut as the hero who loves and loses first a robot, then his soulmate, then a courtesan, and finally a diva, the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu hits all the expressive marks from naïve lyricism to heartbroken disillusionment. From the glittering international quartet of Hoffmann’s inamoratas, I’ll single out the American soprano Katrina Galka as the wind-up doll Olympia, who, amid pinpoint flights of stratospheric coloratura, cartwheels over the furniture in her ribbons and bows, tossing in a king’s ransom of extra high notes. As the Muse who doubles as Hoffmann’s loyal sidekick Nicklausse, the Ukrainian mezzo Alexandra Kadurina earns her laurels, too. And boo (in a good way) to the Nosferatu-eyed British bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams as the Four Villains, steeped in Gallic malevolence.
Les Contes d’Hoffmann is available for streaming on the Zurich Opera’s Web site through May 16
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii