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Kinky Brothel Games Intrigue in ENO’s ‘Hoffmann’: London Stage

February 15, 2012

Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) -- It’s an odd sort of brothel. There’s a gigantic shaving mirror on the wall, a schoolboy on the make and a pet gorilla on the loose.

I wasn’t the only one scratching my head after seeing Richard Jones’s new production of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” at English National Opera. Fortunately, it’s as intriguing and enjoyable as it is puzzling.

Jones begins the story in a drab 1950s attic garret. This is the home of Hoffmann (Barry Banks), a drunken author with writer’s block. Hoffmann’s Muse (Christine Rice) appears to him in the guise of a cheeky 10-year-old schoolboy, and suggests that he recall some of his love affairs to cure himself of his current passion.

The hero then re-enacts his early affair with a life-size doll called Olympia, and the garret is transformed into a creepy nursery: odd wallpaper, garish colors, children in weird masks, that sort of thing.

When he remembers his love for Antonia, a singer on the verge of death, the garret becomes a gothic boudoir. Dr. Miracle (Clive Bayley), the evil physician in charge of Antonia, looks amusingly like Herman Munster.

Hoffmann’s affair with the prostitute Giulietta is set in yet another version of the same room. This time, it’s transformed into a clinical-looking brothel, complete with huge mirror and gorilla.

Surreal Puzzle

Watching so many surreal, metaphor-heavy images is like doing a join-the-dots puzzle. If the different locations remain fundamentally the same, then that means they’re just hallucinations of Hoffmann’s drink-befuddled brain, right? So the schoolboy who appears to him must be his younger and more innocent self?

Younger self or no, it still looks odd when a 10-year-old boy asks Hoffmann to love him. Is he being a Muse at that point, or a schoolboy? That’s the trouble with stagings that rely on “it’s all in his head” as the chief MacGuffin. The relationships become diluted, the conflicts enfeebled. The other characters lose focus.

That said, lots of it works beautifully. Antonia’s morbid love of singing is presented as a form of addiction, and when she needs her fix she scrabbles at locked drawers and cupboards to find forbidden scores. When the evil Dr. Miracle appears and urges her to sing, he causes just the comedy-horror frisson that he should.

Strong Singers

There’s some fine singing. Georgia Jarman tackles the almost impossible trittico of all three heroines and acquits herself with style. She has a spit-spot coloratura as Olympia and a melting legato as Antonia, and her stage guises are as varied as can be.

Rice (Muse/Schoolboy) has a rich mezzo voice, and Banks has top notes that shimmer like icicles. They’re supported by Antony Walker’s conducting, which is able rather than exciting.

Rating: ***.

A similar comment can be made about Alan Ayckbourn’s 1974 comedy “Absent Friends” in a new production at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The play charts familiar Ayckbourn territory, looking at the fears lying just below the self-delusions of middle-class life. Sometimes, it’s so accurate that it makes you wince while you laugh. At other moments, it feels like Ayckbourn forgot to put all his sharp observations into a proper plot.

Nerdy Colin

It takes place in a 1970s suburban living room. A group of friends are preparing a tea party to meet nerdy Colin (Reece Shearsmith), whom they haven’t seen in three years. During that time, Colin’s fiancee has died.

John and Paul are frightened that Colin will want to talk about death. Diana and Marge don’t quite know what to do when he does. Slowly, their own relationships begin to unravel. Paul’s affair with married Evelyn (Kara Tointon) threatens to explode the fake bonhomie.

The cast is great, the timing perfect. If only there were something new after the intermission, instead of more of the same terror-filled chit-chat, it would be a masterpiece. Instead, the play trundles along the same set of rails until it eventually runs out of steam, and then Colin says goodbye.

Never mind. There’s lots of enjoyment to be had along the way.

Rating: **.

Star Countess

David McVicar’s solid production of Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” has been doing good business at the Royal Opera House for more than five years. It’s had a number of revivals, some more successful than others.

The latest version is pleasingly lively, and has two remarkable elements that give it a real boost. Antonio Pappano’s conducting invests the score with freshly pointed details -- who knew that the horns could add such a note of menace to the overture? -- and young American soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen proves a name to watch as the Countess. After a shaky start, she came into her own during “Dove sono,” and hurled out her juicy top A’s with electrifying force. A big voice, and maybe a big star in the making.

Rating: ***.

“The Tales of Hoffmann” is in repertoire at the Coliseum through March 10. Information: www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200.

“Absent Friends” is at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Information: www.atgtickets.com or +44-844-871-7627.

“Le nozze di Figaro” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera through March 2. Information: www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Jim Ruane, Mark Beech.

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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