Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Les Contes d’Hoffmann @ Royal Opera House, London

25, 28 November, 1, 4, 7, 10, 13 December 2008

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House)

Four years ago Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón took Covent Garden by storm when he essayed the role of Hoffmann for the first time. Richard Hickox conducted those memorable performances, so it was a fitting tribute that the first night of this latest revival was dedicated to his memory. The musical world has been shocked by Hickox’s death, and if Tuesday’s night performance lacked the necessary fizz that this work demands, then I’m sure it was down to such extenuating circumstances.

After a much publicised vocal crisis, Villazón was returning to the scene of his first major international success but invariably such ventures often prove to be a gamble. Was his debut a fluke, or would he be able rekindle the flame that had so ignited the Covent Garden audience four years ago? Well, having been distinctly underwhelmed by his Don Carlos in the summer, I was surprised at what a brilliantly-secure, well-schooled tenor instrument he has at his disposal.

Musical to a fault, and capable of wonderfully burnished tone which he displayed with ardour, panache and flashes of brilliance throughout the long evening, I came away convinced that he is more suited to the French repertoire than he is the Italian. It’s therefore particularly exasperating that the Royal Opera chose to perform the Verdi opera in translation as, whatever anyone says, Don Carlo sings better when performed in the original French. Or put it another way, I’d be more likely to rush to see his Des Grieux (Massenet) than I would his Duke of Mantua. And if proof were needed that he’s no fluke then here it was.

With one notable exception, the rest of the cast failed to attain this high level of vocal excellence, and if there aren’t first rate singers in the other roles, then Offenbach’s opera can drag, as it did here from time to time. Christine Rice as the Venetian courtesan Giulietta matched Villazón note for note and was alluring in both voice and body, confirming her position as one of the country’s most versatile and exciting singers.

It was just a shame that she was on stage for such a short period of time. In the first act Ekaterina Lekhina scaled the dizzying heights of Offenbach’s coloratura with aplomb as the doll Olympia, but the voice isn’t that particularly individual or memorable whilst Katie van Kooten was no more than adequate as Antonia.

Gidon Saks was underpowered vocally as the Four Villains, replacing menace with an incongruous whiff of camp but the smaller roles were well taken by Royal Opera stalwarts such as Robin Leggate and Graham Clark. Despite an unfortunate yet striking resemblance to Hayley Cropper, Kristine Jepson was a vital presence in the trouser role of Nicklausse although she failed to strike the same kind of form as she had as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos in June.

Antonio Pappano drew some sensuous sounds from the orchestra whilst the late John Schlesinger’s crusty-old production is probably now ready for retirement. Not vintage Offenbach then, but worth catching for Villazon’s return to form.

Read our interview with Christine Rice here

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Les Contes d’Hoffmann @ Royal Opera House, London
Don Carlo @ Royal Opera House, London
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