Unlucky in Love
GIUSEPPE PENNISI visits Pisa for
The Tales of Hoffmann
The Tales of Hoffmann
In Jacques Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, the protagonist (a poet and a would-be womanizer, but with very little luck) tells his life and unlucky love stories to a group of drinking buddies while awaiting his latest would-be conquest, an opera singer, Stella, who is performing in Mozart's Don Giovanni. The stories he tells are more bitter than sweet; in each act, he courts unsuccessfully a different woman. When Don Giovanni is over and Stella arrives, the poor fellow is totally drunk. Of course, she goes out to dinner (and what not) with some other chap. Some time ago, I reviewed the joint production of the English National Opera and the Munich National Theater [Innovative Dramaturgy, 6 August 2012]. Now, a new production has just started to tour Italy. It is a joint venture between small provincial theatres (in Pisa, Livorno, Lucca and Novara), all performed in very attractive buildings with an important traditional past when Italy was divided into a series of independent States. They receive very limited central government support and some assistance from the local authorities as well as from local sponsors. They have to make do on shoe string budgets. Thus, it was daring to stage an opera as complex as Les contes d'Hoffmann. I saw it on 8 February 2014 at its debut in Pisa's Teatro Verdi.
Richard Jones is the mastermind of the London and Munich production. Jones shuns librettist Jules Barbier's stage indications and locates the piece within an interior world. The opera's three tales are played out in variants of Hoffmann's own study, re-imagined each time to suggest his creative mind at work within its own environment. Up until the opera's close (when Stella, his true love, finds him sprawled under his desk in a stupor) nothing we see is real — not even the swarm of students who crawl out of the woodwork during the Prologue, nor indeed the evil Lindorf, here a figure conjured by the Muse herself as a somewhat neutered emblem of darkness. Jones and his designer, Giles Cadle, carry off this reinvention brilliantly, and with the storylines rendered intact there is little here to irritate even the most literally-minded of spectators. In Jones' staging, Hoffmann is not the usual garrulous taproom raconteur, but a depressive alcoholic at a artistic standstill.
In Pisa, on a budget of 85,000 euros per performance (including sets, costumes and payments to soloists, orchestra, chorus and artistic staff — ie director, conductor, costumes and set designer and lighting specialist), the whole production is entrusted to young people with the exception of the conductor, Guy Condette. The dramaturgy is in the hands of a team in their mid-thirties (Nicola Zorzi, stage direction; Mauro Tinti, sets; Elena Cicorella costumes; Michele Della Mea, lighting). The action is moved to the beginning of the twentieth century, the time of silent cinema; the second act is in a movie theatre where a silent film is being shown and Antonia plays the piano (and sings) to accompany it. There is a basic single set and only a few props make the action move from Nuremberg to Munich and then on to Venice and back to Nuremberg. Hoffmann is not a depressive alcoholic but a happy would-be-womanizer, but his attempts to conquest ladies fail all the time. The singers are young, good looking and act very well. Hoffmann is a handsome twenty-eight-year-old Brazilian (Max Jota), his challenger (either in conquering women or in preventing the protagonist to reach is love goals) is twenty-three-year-old baritone Federico Cavarzan in the four roles of Lindorf, Coppelius, Doctor Miracle and Dappertutto. The main women (Madina Serebryakova Karbeli, Claudia Sasso, Valentina Boi and Marta Leung Kwing Chung) are an international group in their twenties and early thirties. Both the orchestra and the chorus are cooperative ventures of young musicians and singers. Selections were made in June 2013 after auditions. Then, four training sessions — a week each -- were held in Lucca, Novara, Livorno and Pisa, before starting rehearsal.
The overall result is quite good. The production picks up on the sweet-and-sour flavor of Les contes d'Hoffmann. The action is as fast as in the silent films. Acting is excellent. Singing of good standard and will, no doubt, improve as the staging travels from theatre to theatre.
In Pisa the audience was enthralled. It is good to see so many young people devote their lives to music.