Tales of Hoffmann, Tales of Villazón

This brief Festspiele return of Les Contes d’Hoffmann to the Bayerische Staatsoper was marked by
major cancellations, notably Diana Damrau as the three heroines (preggers) and conductor
Constantine Carydis (presumably not preggers). Ironically, canceler par excellence Rolando Villazón
actually showed up and sang the title role; sadly I spent most of the
performance wishing he hadn’t. It was a bumpy ride, and the production isn’t
Jones’s best, but the three excellent new women, Brenda Rae, Olga Mykytenko,
and Anna Virovlansky, oddly shifted the focus of the opera.

Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/19/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Marc Piollet

Inszenierung Richard Jones
Bühne Giles Cadle
Kostüme Buki Shiff
Choreographie Lucy Burge
Licht Mimi Jordan Sherin

Olympia Brenda Rae
Antonia Olga Mykytenko
Giulietta Anna Virovlansky
Cochenille / Pitichinaccio / Frantz Kevin Conners
Lindorf / Coppélius / Dapertutto / Miracle John Relyea
Nicklausse/Muse Angela Brower
Stimme aus dem Grab Okka von der Damerau
Hoffmann Rolando Villazón
Spalanzani Ulrich Reß
Nathanael Dean Power
Hermann Tim Kuypers
Schlémil Christian Rieger
Crespel / Luther Christoph Stephinger
Wilhelm Andrew Owens

Watching Rolando Villazón in Les Contes d’Hoffmann was sadly similar to seeing Natalie Dessay in
La traviata. The hard-living,
slightly manic writer might seem to be a perfect character for Villazón, who
has been through a lot and has always been slightly manic. But alas, experiencing
artistic difficulties does not assist in rendering artistic difficulties vocally. His voice is barely recognizable. I’d actually only heard him live
once before, back in 2006, shortly before his vocal crisis started. But I
remember a vibrant tenor, tense and pushed but exciting. Now the lower register
is still tense and has some of the same tonal quality while the upper half is
weak and deployed only with extreme caution. I found moments of this performance
bordered on the grotesque, when he was putting in so much bodily
effort, overacting so much, but the voice simply failed to back him up.

Richard Jones sets
the entire opera as a flashback in what might be Stella’s dressing room. The
Muse is no more than a double for Hoffmann himself (poor mezzo Angela Brower
had to don Villazónian eyebrows). The bar emerges by magic, populated by
an identically-dressed chorus of pipe-puffing flaneurs, some of whom who follow
the action in every scene. The furniture of the room only slightly rearranges
itself for each tale, tying them together to show how Hoffmann finally got to
such a pessimistic state. (The loud wallpaper, however, does change, justifying
my nickname for him, Wallpaper Jones, yet again.) Hoffmann’s first love, when he is still in short pants, is a
crush on the Barbie-like Olympia (her blue dress seemingly based on Disney’s
Cinderella), decked out in bright colors and childlike décor. Antonia is the
victim of his teenaged romanticism run amok, with all her passion going towards
the wrong people. Giulietta wears a kind of transparent dress and inhabits a
surreal world of pure lust, her room equipped with a giant shaving mirror for
stealing men’s reflections. At the end, they unconvincingly surround Hoffmann
and salute, of course Twue Wuv the entertainment value of Hoffmann’s tales.

This production does some things well, best of all tying
together the different episodes. But it doesn’t do much with the villains at
all, and John Relyea didn’t have much stature in any of the roles. It moves
along, but in coherence and inventiveness falls below the standard I expect of
Jones. I’ve seen worse Hoffmanns, or rather Hoffmänner, for example at the Met, but it’s not the most exciting. (Edition notes: The ordering Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta is not universal
but I think is considered the more Urtext-adjacent one, and this production also
is for a coloratura Giulietta and does not include the big ensemble version of the
Barcarolle. The program says the score is “based” on the Kaye edition, but not
that it uses it exclusively.)

The production was designed for Diana Damrau playing all the
women (she’s in these photos), but here was performed with three different
sopranos. Personally, I prefer this option (I believe some academic opinions claim
Offenbach never envisioned a single-soprano version, FWIW), because few
sopranos can convince vocally in all three roles and I like the contrast. Here there
was a shift in the drama as well. With a weak Hoffmann and Jones’s flaneurs,
the focus switched from the icky “three women in one” thing to the way society
controls and oppresses the various women, from the admiration of Olympia’s
mechanical and yet feminine charms to the put-upon Antonia to the utterly
helpless Giulietta. Hoffmann is less a victim of feminine wiles than a witness
to patriarchy in action.

Fellow audience members seemed to find conductor Marc
Piollet a major improvement over fall’s apparently very slow Carydis, and he
did lead with zippiness. The chorus and orchestra, however, wasn’t quite
prepared to follow him. Many of the choruses were alarmingly scrappy and the
violins in the Olympia act were a mess. The soloists had an easier time. Villazón
had his best outing in the Antonia act, where some of his middle-voice phrases
had an appealing warmth. John Relyea as the villains did not make much of an
impression, sounding deep but exceedingly wobbly and making no real
distinctions between the roles—perhaps that was a dramatic point, but if so I
didn’t get it.
The real star of the show might have been Angela Brower as
the Muse. Her voice might not be very French—actually, no one in this
production’s was, so whatever—but it has a pure, clear strength that is even
through all the registers and fills the theater beautifully. I hadn’t heard any
of the three women replacing Damrau before and found them all promising and
interesting.  Brenda Rae as Olympia sang
with bell-like tone with a nice warmth up to the top. While her first aria had
a few slips of rhythm, her waltz was quite precise, had some impressive high
interpolations, and showed real spirit and humor. Olga Mykytenko might be a
lyric soprano, but as Antonia she wielded her strong, slightly steely
voice with a blunt force more reminiscent of La Gioconda. It’s a powerful instrument and she uses it excitingly, if not always with the greatest musical delicacy. As
pure voice goes the pick of the three was Anna Virolansky’s Giulietta, sung
with round and sweet tone as well as agility in the coloratura. Supporting
roles featured various Bay Staats regulars. I’m not sure if Frantz’s aria
really works if you sing it as nicely as Kevin Conners did, and I’ve seen it
much funnier. As Crespel, Chistoph Stephinger may have outsung Relyea.

Hoffmann is an
opera of almost Don Giovanni-like
complexity in the number of moving parts and dramatic problems. (By the way, I think it is also one of the most underrated of scores. Offenbach is an incredibly wonderful composer, and this one is a troublesome masterpiece, on a level with Carmen.) This one
was problematic in some big ways, but there were things to like too.

Excerpt (Kleinzach), where Villazon sounds more even than he did in person:

Documentary (featuring Rolando Villazon’s amusing German):

All photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.

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  1. Yes, Villazon's singing (or non-singing rather) became increasingly excruciating to listen to as the evening went on, hightened even further by having heard Kaufmann's immaculate singing the previous evening. I was shocked that Villazon went on stage in such vocal condition. What will be with him? I wonder if he is aware of how bad it was. He was so clearly struggling, it was almost tragic to witness his decline, him a shadow of what he used to be. 🙁

  2. Last night I heard Villazon singing the Kleinzach aria at the Domingo Operalia concert in London. It was not pretty to say the least.

    And unfortunatly this was only highlighted by having Joseph Calleja follow him onstage and sing in stunning form.

  3. Well judging by that video, I think he sounds great! Musical flair, vocal charisma, moving sense of clownish self-disgust. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if someone who has had such bad luck in his health might have extreme highs and lows. Some singers don't reach every part of a venue either, which can be strange.

  4. Saw Villazon in this last November and he gave a great performance so maybe you caught him on a bad night. I doubt if this is ideal repertoire vocally but astonishing stage presence and artistry.