Tales of Herheim at the Bregenz Festival

If you’re one of those people who fill comment sections with impassioned arguments about different editions of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, has Stefan Herheim ever got something for you. (If you aren’t, you’ll find plenty to like too.) This production, which premiered on Thursday night at the Bregenz Festival, is not an attempt to create a definitive, authentic edition of one of the most convoluted operas in the repertoire. It’s about what’s at stake in such a search for authenticity–about subject and object, what it means to control and/or love someone, and whether we ever can escape our own heads.

And rarely has the search for the true self looked so much like a twisted Busby Berkeley musical!

Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Bregenzer Festspiele, new production premiere conducted by Johannes Debus and directed by Stefan Herheim with sets by Christof Hetzer, costumes by Esther Bialas, lights by Phoenix/Andreas Hofer, video by fettFilm; cast includes Daniel Johansson (Hoffmann), Mandy Fredrich (Antonia/Giulietta), Kerstin Avemo (Olympia/Giulietta), Rachel Frenkel (Muse/Niklausse/Voice from the Grave), Michael Volle (Villains), Christophe Mortagne (Servants), Bengt-Ola Morgny (Spalanzani)

Note: I usually don’t put spoiler warnings on reviews, but this one perhaps merits it because it contains so many jokes and surprises. Do what you want with this.

Two or three years ago I heard some worried murmuring. Was Stefan Herheim, opera staging’s craziest genius, becoming boring? Some of his recent productions, like Serse in Berlin and Les vêpres siciliennes in London, seemed somewhat more conventional than we expected. They were fun, sure, but they seemed almost… sane. And then Herheim seemed to simply drop off the scene for a while. Maybe he just needed some time to sit on the beach (or the fjord), because with this production he is back, he is still weird, and there’s nothing at all boring about this Hoffmann. It’s a smart, fantastic, sometimes incomprehensible journey through an artist’s id.

This production opens with a giant revue-style staircase edged with tuxedo-wearing chorus people of indeterminate gender. A woman appears to stand at the top in a long silvery gown; she turns around to reveal herself as a very large and very drunk drag queen, who then trips and fall down those most of those stairs, making most of the audience gasp (the role is acted by stuntman Pär Pelle Karlsson). This is, it turns out, Stella’s big appearance at the theater, which isn’t much of a success. (This is all staged to the opening drinking chorus. Stella took “je suis le vin” a little too literally.) The Muse, a more accomplished and surefooted version of Stella, and the production’s ego, proclaims his/her mission to get this excess back together.

This throws us into the deep end of Regie with little idea of what is going on, which is only to be expected but nonetheless an audience member started booing very loudly at this point and protesting that this was not what he had come to see. This audience member in question was sitting two seats over from me, looked to be a very bourgeois middle-aged gentleman (i.e. the prime booing demographic) and for a moment I was sure that I was in another Guillaume Tell situation. Said very loud audience member, angrily proffering his Hoffmann program book, stormed onstage and, continued to insist that this was not Hoffmann.

The Regie critic

Of course this was Lindorf, the villain, who wants to control Hoffmann and thus Hoffmann. He is also Luther, the tavern-keeper, as well as the villains in each “tale.”* It’s a very funny joke, self-aware on Herheim’s part but also part of the production’s larger project. What is authentic art, anyway, and should a fractured text like Hoffmann be made whole? (Too much time with critical theory makes me, like Herheim, more inclined to trust the honesty of the fragment.) An Offenbach puppet is produced from an ornate, locked cello case like a kind of icon, but one which can be manipulated to serve Lindorf’s wishes. A quill is passed around like the shell in Lord of the Flies. Another Offenbach, taking the guise of the servant characters, often lingers in the background, at times conducting.

But Hoffmann himself is not so easily tied down and, like Stella’s disastrous opening, journeys through excess and desire to reach art. These being his tales, almost everything appears as some fact of his personality–even the villains, Hoffmann’s super-ego. Recognizable from a high forehead and frizzy hair (both attributes the historical E.T.A. Hoffmann seemed to possess, though perhaps not in such prodigious quantities), he is everywhere: the Muse is Hoffmann, the whole chorus is Hoffmänner. The women are all versions of Stella, all in either silver dresses or stripped to a pink corset. But they–like the supersized Stella of the opening–don’t represent women so much as a desired but monstrous Other (Klein-Zack too), gender relations as symbolic logic. They are attractive but also repulsive, and over and over they are destroyed.

Miracle, Crespel, Hoffmann

Hoffmann himself transforms through the opera, becoming his subjects. When encountering Olympia, it is he who turns into a robot (and finally a doll), when confronted with Antonia’s pathos, he is transformed into her. It sounds very abstract, and it is–it’s not the kind of production which you can explain what everything “means” from moment to moment. But it works because all this is put into the blender of a burlesque or revue, a singing, dancing, queer miasma of identity. (In case you haven’t gotten this already, there is a lot of drag.) Even tragedy can become spectacle: Antonia’s mother is the Muse, appearing in another silver dress at the top of the stairs, an ensemble which turns into a top hat and cane dance number. This production is more Komische Oper–and the worthy heir of the landmark Walter Felsenstein Hoffmann–than some productions that are actually at the Komische Oper.


It culminates in a hallucinogenic version of the Venice act, cut and rearranged. Left incomplete, no versions of it are really satisfying, but Herheim and Debus’s new version presents itself as a fragment, a manic reworking of the previous tales. The Barcarolle is an interlude with an elegant, sizable gondola sliding across the stage, only it has a coffin in the middle of it–and soon there are more coffins onstage too. In the program book Herheim calls it “Hoffmann’s Death in Venice.” Giulietta is in herself triplicate; the singers of the Muse, Antonia, and Olympia surround Hoffmann split her music. Giulietta’s coloraturastic aria “L’amor lui dit: la belle,” which rarely makes the cut in productions, switches appropriately rapidly between three voices.

Hoffmann emerges from this nightmare, but the ending is not entirely satisfying, a rather routine concertante on the Meaning of Art. (And yes, some of the non-Offenbach parts of the score are included–very intentionally.) But perhaps a collective is appropriate, a moment where all the aspects of Hoffmann seem to be working together, arranged in an extravagant tableau.

This is a production which makes enormous demands on its cast and they all put in amazing efforts. As Hoffmann, tireless tenor Daniel Johansson is by turns charming and chilling in an incredibly strenuous performance. He sings with power and consistency and sounds quite good the whole way through, though his basic tone may be a bit generic. Michael Volle’s villains are sung with a sharp edge and at times sounded rough, but it is in service to an exceptionally sinister group of characters.


As Olympia, Kerstin Avemo does not sing the most accurate “Les oiseux dans la charmille” ever, but it quite possibly was the most orgasmic, and she finds a new, oddly poignant take on old robot moves. As Antonia, Mandry Fredrich sings with sensitive clarity and was possibly the most recognizably human figure onstage. Rachel Frenkel’s Muse is deft, witty, and wonderfully acted, but her voice, while accurate, is slim. Christophe Montagne makes a visually convincing Offenbach, but his “Jour et nuit” was somewhat underwhelming in vocal terms, lacking the bite of the staging. The Prague Philharmonic Chorus does impressive work, and the Wiener Symphoniker sounds excellent, though I found Johannes Debus’s conducting somewhat less propulsive and atmospheric that I would have liked. The orchestra could have taken more of a leading role here. (I was, however, sitting right near the front and it may have sounded different from further back.)


If I have reservations about this production–other than that I would have loved to see it twice so I could think about it some more–it’s that I don’t think it looks as good as previous Herheim productions. Christof Hetzer’s set and Esther Bialas’s costumes are extremely monochromatic, with only a few bits of red and wood furniture disrupting the black, white, and pale pink. I wonder if this was intended to recall a black and white film, or to secure as serious what could have easily tipped into pure decadence. Yet that line between dense intellectualism and beautiful party seems to me to be a key element of Herheim’s appeal. While this production acted like a party it didn’t always look like one. The video also seems superfluous, possibly because it looks amateurish compared to everything else. (The Neuenfels Bayreuth Lohengrin I will write about next is an instructive comparison on this account.) It also has some technical kinks to be worked out–there was one stoppage (of around 10 minutes) during the opening performance, and something wonky was happening with the (amplified?) audio of the Barcarolle, sung far, far upstage and not quite audible.

Even more than Herheim’s previous work, this is a staging which rejects the work-concept as an operatic ideal–or even rejects its very feasibility. (When it comes to thematizing composition, it makes the festival’s other production, Marco-Arturo Marelli’s Turandot, look superficial.) We may think that we know what Hoffmann is and think that it has a fixed historic status which can be located once we find the right edition, but it is a chimera, and has meant many things to many people. For an opera about doubles, split personalities, and reflections, not to mention its messy text, this open-ended interpretation has particular salience. But fortunately this is wrapped in a dazzling, virtuosic performance–it’s not just ideas, it’s also a show.

You can watch a few short videos of the production here.  Hoffmann runs until August 6.

*I had not noticed that a fairly well-known baritone and member of the cast had sat down two seats over from me, but at intermission I also discovered that René Pape had sat down two rows directly behind me and I hadn’t noticed him either.

Previously in Stefan Herheim:
Parsifal, possibly the best production I have ever seen of anything
Salome, my essay on Herheim published in Opera Quarterly
Carmen, a production which is “half Nietzsche and half Susan McClary” 

Photos copyright Karl Forster.







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  1. Sorry, Zerb, but the Giulietta act was NOT left incomplete. It was practically finished when Offenbach died; the forthcoming edition will demonstrate that. I'm intrigued by this production but it's wrong to say the opera was unfinished.At least the Muse/Nicklausse is a soprano but cutting the Giulietta act really savages the drama. But on it goes. I can't wait for the Kaye-Keck edition to come out.

  2. Hi Donna Anna, I was really hoping someone would make this comment (which I anticipated in the first sentence of this review). This production very thoroughly interrogates the nature of authenticity and our seemingly deep desire for a single definitive version of anything. The mixture of editions is intentional. Perhaps Offenbach did get Hoffmann the way he wanted (though I think we can be excused for wondering about this given how long the Kaye edition has been forthcoming), but its legacy has been equally shaped by its messy afterlife.. The near-religious quest for a One True Vision, this production posits, is ultimately an illusion of control (among other things).