Wiener Staatsoper 2019-20 Review: Les Contes D’Hoffmann
Dmitry Korchak Dominates In Offenbach’s MasterpieceBy Francisco Salazar
(Credits: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)
“Les Contes d’Hoffmann” is one of the touchstone French operas, especially for tenors. It features a role most tenors look to sing because of the acting possibilities and the rich music that Offenbach wrote. But it is also a challenging evening that requires stamina from its leading man, as well as a solid cast that he can bounce off of to populate a fascinating world of emotions.
An effective “Hoffmann” does all that and more and on opening night at the Wiener Staatsoper, the revival of Andrei Serban’s inventive production saw a tenor in a star-making performance and a soprano attempt one of the biggest challenges in the repertoire as the Vienna house celebrated the 200th anniversary of Offenbach’s birthday.
An Effective Hoffmann
In the title role, Dmitry Korchak gave an outstanding performance that easily stole the show. While he began a bit stiff on stage, he quickly eased into the challenges of the role and created an incredible character arc.
His Hoffmann begins as a wild, drunk, and unpredictable man that can easily be the life of the party or an introspective depressed being. That was showcased in his “Kleinzach” where Korchak dispatched the rhythmic phrases with staccati lines in the A portion before displaying an ardent and expressive timbre that flowed with a smooth and rich tone in the B section. During the return to the A section, Korchak went back to the staccato phrasing, but the repetition saw his tone a bit harsher with less elegance; that said, he dispatched an interpolated High C at the end of the piece that was both showstopping and incredibly virtuosic. Then as Hoffmann started to tell his story, the tenor expressed a nostalgic quality that would later turn into violence in the epilogue with a repetition of “Kleinzach.” This repetition saw the tenor lose all vocal elegance and simply perform the piece with accented notes and full tenorial volume.
In the first act, Korchak’s Hoffmann was an innocent young man. His facial expressions of wonder and joy as Olympia gave him a slight look or gave him an air kiss simply enhanced that sense of first love. That characterization was furthered by his singing as he displayed restraint in his “Allons! Courage et confiance, Ah! Vivre deux.” He sang the aria with tenderness and connected phrases, and even as the vocal lines ascended and climaxed, Korchak kept his voice controlled and never went to the full forte. It was effective as it evoked the emotions of a timid teen afraid of giving in fully to his first big crush.
That of course continued to evolve in the second act with Antonia. The innocence turned to more sophistication, elegance, warmth, and maturity. Upon entering, one could immediately sense the love for Antonia in his tender visage and his graceful phrasing. In their ensuing duet, he sang with passion matching soprano Olga Peretyatko’s sweet tone and looking into her eyes.
His Hoffmann continued to evolve during the act as fear began to replace his feelings of mature love. His lines obtained a harsher quality, though his higher notes remained even and resonant. In his second interaction with Antonia, he sang with a mezzo forte sound, but the elegance in his phrases had diminished and his final “Antonia” was heart-wrenchingly plush and powerful in his expression.
The third act saw Korchak’s Hoffmann transform into a desperate, violent, and depressed human. His Hoffmann pursued Giulietta viciously throughout and did everything he had to to win her over. Vocally it was also the act where the Russian tenor used his entire vocal artillery. During “Amis, L’Amour tendre et reveur erreur,” he sang with accented phrases that launched into long legato lines before returning to an ardent forte with staccati singing. Korchak pulled off the difficult couplets with ease and virtuosic force.
His subsequent “O Dieu! de quelle ivresse” was sung with a burnished timbre in the first verse. He delivered the aria with desperation in the first verse, crescendoing to a fortissimo sound. However, Korchak then did something that I had never heard before. He sang the second verse mezza voce with a piano sound. It was delicately phrased with the connecting lines and rather than crescendo to the forte in the climax he maintained that floating quality that in many ways was more irresistible. Only in the ensuing duet did Korchak once again bring his full vocal potency to the fore as he submitted to Giuletta’s tempting music. His tone crescendoing to its limits as he rose to the high B Flat. By the end of the act, you could sense that his Hoffmann was a fallen man that didn’t care about anything. It was a tragedy in the most poignant sense.
A Multilayered Villain
As the four villains, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni gave a solid and compelling performance that saw variations of four types of men.
His Lindorf was by no means the evil human that most seem to portray but a soldier with an imposing stature who is competitive and jealous. That was most visible in his prologue aria as Pisaroni sang with an imposing timbre that would turn into smoother and nuanced singing in the more lyrical sections of the aria. Then in the prologue trio, one saw Pisaroni’s Lindorf confronting Hoffmann as if they were equals; yet he betrayed a sense of insecurity. Most interesting was the choice of director Andrei Serban to portray Lindorf as a younger man instead of the older one that we often get. This added another layer to Pisaroni’s portrayal and the rivalry with Hoffmann.
As Coppelius, Pisaroni clearly enjoyed each moment as he thew himself into the comedic qualities of this world, especially in his interactions with Korchak’s Hoffmann’s and during his small duet with Spalanzani. For Act one, Pisaroni wasn’t playing a villain in the crudest sense, emphasizing his role as a schemer trying to collect a debt. It was only when Coppelius discovers that Spalanzani is bankrupt that Pisaroni’s Coppelius took on a vengeful personality and his voice took on a darker quality. His voice his dynamic took on a forte sound in particular in a brief solo moment.
That darkness transformed in Act two as Pisaroni portrayed Dr. Miracle in what may have been the show-stealing moment of his performance. As the villainous doctor, Pisaroni truly embodied the devil with an imposing long-haired grey wig, a pale face that looked like a walking corpse, and a black suit. He was accompanied by his henchmen, who were dressed in similar outfits. Pisaroni’s booming bass voice during the Hoffmann and Crespel trio dominated each moment, particularly as he summoned Antonia to the stage. In the final trio with Antonia and her mother’s ghost, the Italian bass-baritone gave his phrasing some snarky and demonic undertones and his stage presence was irresistible as he would appear in different parts of the stage tempting Antonia to sing. Once Pisaroni’s Miracle won her over, he towered over Peretyatko’s Antonia and his deep and resonant voice unleashed its voluminous potential into the auditorium.
As Dappertutto, Pisaroni brought a portrayed a completely different antagonistic force. While his Coppelius was young and fresh and his Miracle was wicked, Dappertutto was a fragile and broken old man. This was most evident in the use of his wheelchair and the bald head and pale face.
Then there were Pisaroni’s vocal qualities. While his Miracle was booming with energy and force, the bass-baritone brought out a drier and coarser tone to the character which worked effectively. It was mostly represented in his aria “Scintille, diamant.” This is the one moment where Offenbach gives the villain an introspective moment and Pisaroni used it to introduce a sense of vulnerability and dimension. He caressed the phrases with piano sound and held the notes out effectively in a delicate manner. It was as if the diamond he held was his only chance of seducing or obtaining a woman. What’s more, this approach made you remember that at his core, Dappertutto (and the other villains) is a reflection of Hoffmann himself.
A Rare Feat
Olga Peretyatko took on the challenging of singing the four heroines for the third time in her career. It’s a challenge as the roles of Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta all have different ranges and each require a different vocal style. Olympia is a full coloratura, Antonia a lyric soprano and Giuletta a lower, almost mezzo-type voice. Offenbach technically wrote the roles for the same voice but it is never an easy task to find a soprano who is up for the challenge and one that can actually sing all three plus Stella who is more of a silent role with the exception of the concertato in the epilogue.
In her third outing, Peretyatko proved up to the task dramatically even if her voice wasn’t always perfect.
In this production, Olympia is more than a doll. She is a robot who moves about the stage controlled by remote control and who prances, waves a fan and even seduces in moments. In the moments when Hoffmann puts the glasses that Coppelius sells to him, she becomes a real-life woman who dances the waltz with ease and even falls to the ground as a femme fatale waiting for her man. She is uncontrollable in other instances and simply conveys more of a real-life human than most other versions do.
During the Doll Song “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” Peretyatko showcased a charismatic performance by flirting, dancing and simply enjoying herself as the doll. Vocally the soprano began with a sturdy, sweet voice that used the staccato line to her advantage and cut each note short to sustain a lighter feel. The second verse of the aria was also sung with ease as the variations brought the soprano’s voice to the higher stratosphere and Peretyatko proved an expert in controlling the higher staccati notes. However it was in her trills that her pitch seemed to go awry and they seemed to be directionless. Her final E flat didn’t quite work either as it lacked the climactic ascension or crescendo needed to cause an impact. Instead, her pitch faltered and she lost power in her voice.
In the coloratura passage during the waltz, Peretyatko began the roulades with a clean coloratura that unfortunately started to get sloppy as she had to ascend to the higher register and the music called for variations. The voice also became thin and seemed to run out of air. As the passage went to the climax Peretyatko was inaudible in the hall and the soprano cut the sustained high note short.
Still, for all her vocal mishaps, it was interesting to see the gracefulness with which Pertyatko moved about the stage.
As Antonia, Peretyatko inhabited a frail and mad Antonia who was possessed by the music. That delicacy in her character was portrayed through her music-making as she never went beyond a mezzo forte, always carefully phrasing each moment. In her aria “Elle a fui, la tourterelle,” the soprano began with a piano sound that crescendoed in the ascending line to a mezzo forte but quickly dimenuedoed to showcase Antonia’s hesitations and fears.
In her duet with Hoffmann the soprano kept a smooth legato line that meshed well with Korchak but, like her aria, never went beyond a similar dynamic. By the time she was done with the duet, Peretyatko fainted to emphasize the damage a song could do to Antonia. But when Dr. Miracle arrived and she was given some type of siringe, this Antonia became possessed by her mother and by the Doctor’s demonic visage. That was emphasized in the trio as Peretyatko’s movement became unsteady and increasingly intensified. Unfortunately, her vocal line lacked the same intensity and Peretyatko maintained the same frail line throughout the final trio. This is the moment where the soprano releases all her energy and full voice and pushed to the limit to see what Antonia has been keeping inside. For Peretyatko that was not the case as her voice remained a bit thin and lacked the strength and weight to ride over the ensemble. Although she wasn’t helped by Frederic Chaslin’s conducting, which was heavy and loud, the soprano wasn’t audible throughout and her final C sharp didn’t resonate as it should have at the climactic moment of the trio.
As Giulietta, Peretyatko became a complete seductress. From the start, one knew this was an ambitious woman looking out for herself and with no interest in Hoffmann. The tantalizing Barcarolle displayed this as Peretyatko sang with a smoldering middle voice and caressed Gaelle Arquez’s shoulders with intensity. Then her interactions with Dappertutto showcased a manipulative woman that evolved into a femme fatale in the duet with Hoffmann. She emoted some of her lower phrases and then smoothly eased into her middle voice, giving it a sensual and erotic quality. She then took Hoffmann into her arms to get what she wanted. In this act Peretyatko’s voice finally let out its full potential and blazed with strength into the hall; it was, by far, her best interpretation of the night.
As Stella, Peretyatko doesn’t sing until the final ensemble but her characterization was that of a diva, making stock gestures and carrying herself with elegance and glamour. There was nothing revealing about it but she was able to combine the grace of Antonia with the seductive quality of Giulietta.
A Mixed Supporting Cast
As Nicklausse Gaelle Arquez showed a slender and sweet lyric mezzo voice in the prologue and epilogue. Her Muse was the more interesting part of her performances as she showed a tender side and her solo phrases were elegant and featured connected legato line. In the barcarolle, she combined her phrasing well with Peretyako but with Dmitry Korchak, she lacked any chemistry or an interesting character arc. There was simply no hints of Nicklausse’s interest for Hoffmann or hints of their great friendship. Perhaps this was due to the fact that half her arias were cut and that the stage direction really concentrated on Lindorff, Stella, and Hoffmann’s triangle. Whatever may have been the case, Arquez never quite made her mark on the performance.
As Andres, Cochenille, Frantz Pittichinaccio, Michael Laurenz proved versatile. However, he stood out as Frantz in his aria “Ah! J’ai le bonheur dans l’âme.” Unlike most tenors who sing the aria with a comic and squeaky voice, Laurenz displayed a powerful lyric sound that was not only strong but could also be comic in its use. It was dynamic and original and gave the sense of a stronger character, which is later revealed to be a henchman for Dr. Miracle.
Other solid cast members included Dan Paul Dumitrescu as Crespel and Zoryana Kushpler as Antonia’s mother.
In the pit, Frederic Chaslin led a swift performance that helped the long evening move at a steady pace. His use of fast tempi was effective, especially when during the ensemble work – the Act two Trio or the waltz in Act one and the concertato in Act three. But sometimes Chaslin sped up so much that he left the singers behind, especially during the Hoffmann’s Act three drinking song and “Kleinzach” in the prologue. In many instances, Korchak struggled to keep with the pace of Chaslin’s tempi, forcing the conductor to quickly adjust. In Olympia’s aria, the accompanying solo flute also seemed to be a completely different page from Peretyatko figuratively and literally. This was most evident in the interlude before the repetition where the flautist attempted a cadenza that resulted in general sloppiness and an awkward pause before Peretyatko began her second verse.
Another big issue was Chaslin’s handling of volume. While it was effective to use the full orchestra and play out in the big ensemble moments, it was often detrimental in some of the smaller pieces as Chaslin tended to cover his soloists. This was most noticeable during the Act two duet between Antonia and Hoffmann as well the same Act’s trio. At some points, the singers could not be heard because the orchestra was simply too overbearing. Perhaps that was due to limited rehearsal time and it is likely that audiences of the ensuing performances will benefit from adjustments.
Overall this “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” was an enjoyable evening with a standout tenor, a solid production, and a supporting cast that needs to be seen.