Thursday, 6 November 2008

Hoffmania and Gogoliana

So dolly Olympia is in pieces (forgive my own homage above with the celebrated Italian finger puppet), artiste Antonia has sung herself to death and courtesan Giulietta is damned for all eternity. In other words, I've finally laid Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann to rest after six two-hour sessions in my City Lit Opera in Focus course, and I have immeasurably more respect and love for the work than when I somewhat reluctantly embarked. We've seen and heard enough riffs and variations on Offenbach's unfinished masterpiece to know what we want now: as little as possible of the lengthy recitatives patched together by Guiraud and others, the dialogue kept to a minimum, the Giulietta act third rather than second, and so on.

The 'so on' embraces too many details to be rehashed here, but I wouldn't do without the glorious Nicklausse 'ode a la musique' in the Antonia act, which I first heard on Garanca's glowing arias disc, every bar of the original stuff for the Muse at the beginning and end (the part of the Muse/Nicklausse devolved from a mezzo to a soubrette soprano, so much of this disappeared at an early stage), the trio for Coppelius, Hoffmann and Nicklausse which sets the Olympia ball rolling nicely, and of course two major interpolations: the familiar replacement 'Diamond Aria' and the Sextet-or-Quartet drawn, like its parent Barcarolle, from the fairy-opera Die Rheinnixen.

No one production on DVD gets it all right, but we relished the contrasts between Dessay's asylum Olympia-as-Lucia from Lyon (a radical and mostly sharply-focused Louis Erlo production, though the Giulietta act is a mess) and Rancatore's inflateable sex-doll in the Carsen Paris show, Bryn as villain in the latter, and bits of the Powell-Pressburger extravaganza for the visual caprices (quite something to have Moira Shearer, Massine, Ashton, Helpmann and Ludmilla Tcherina all dancing in one film). It has its faults, and swathes are entertainingly dated, but I can see in parts why it had such a huge influence on Scorsese. Here's OTT Helpmann as bug-eyed Coppelius adjusting Shearer's Olympia in the movie's best episode. The denouement, with the doll ripped to bits and the head lying on the ground with the eyelids still blinking, is great cinema.

Schlesinger's Covent Garden production is stuffed full of entertaining detail, and the DVD stars the scarily committed Domingo - Villazon will be hard pressed to match him when the Royal Opera Hoffmann is revived shortly. I still love Bonynge's performing edition on CD, and Joanie swims in and out of focus as the four ladies; but the voice at its most opulent tells us that she should have headed more in the Strauss-Wagner direction in the 1970s. I well remember an evening at the Albery at the time of my seduction by the operatic Sutherland, when the not-then-Dame grimaced in disgust at the photo of her as pouty Giulietta - not really the Aussie housewife's scene. Here are her heroines all gathered together on the cover of the Decca set (with an older Domingo than the one who originally appeared in their company).

As well as finding the opera's dramaturgy a revelation - how I wish Richard Jones would deign to tackle it - I'm also head over heels in love with E T A (for Amadeus, changed out of hopeless Mozartliebe from W for Wilhelm) Hoffmann. I knew several of the tales which gave rise to Offenbach's fantasies, as well as of course to Delibes' Coppelia, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Hindemith's Cardillac. But I hadn't until recently laid my hands on the story of the lost shadow (A New Year's Eve Adventure), a very entertaining historical novella on the pranks of artist-maverick Salvator Rosa (Signor Formica) nor - best of all - the unfinished meisterwerk, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr.

Murr, the talented pet whose penchant for the quill gets mixed up with the story of his owner's moody friend, Kapellmeister Kreisler, appeared thus in the first edition reproduced above, though I think I like the frontispiece for an 1855 text better.

I didn't expect to enjoy this dual biography quite so much, modelled as it is on a novel I've never been able to read from start to finish, Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The difference, I think, is that this tale is told with such warmth as well as humour, qualities I hadn't really appreciated in Hoffmann before: he's as much a classicist as a romantic. The Penguin translation by Anthea Bell is laugh-out-loud funny in its elegance. And of course Hoffmann's thorough knowledge of the music of his time, as a rather interesting composer (I need to hear more), makes the Kreisler passages especially intriguing. Three cheers for the tomcat of all tomcats and his immortal pal the poodle Ponto (I AM Ponto).

And now further east to the even more unsettling imagination of Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol, or rather the way in which his topsy-turvy legacy lives on in a parallel universe. According to the Moscow Times, ‘the Novgorod regional branch of the Investigative Committee in March opened a criminal case against a policeman for booking a woman on charges of public drunkenness "with the goal of improving his work statistics," according to an official statement. In fact, the woman, Irina Yevgrashova, had died at the age of 45 on Oct. 11, 2007, two days before she was charged, investigators said.’

This is the country which, having banned all mention of the words 'financial collapse' on its state-owned media, originally said it would not be heading for the international crisis summit in a hurry because ‘there is no crisis in Russia’ - essentially the same land which stalled attempts to hold the Paralympics in Moscow some years back because ‘we have no disabled people in Russia’.

Finally, still in the fantastical league, our good friend Stefania Pignatelli hit London again from her eyrie in Castel di Lama, Ascoli Piceno, with a breathtaking exhibition at the European Commission - 'As you want me' ('Come tu mi vuoi'). Designed with the help of two lovely guys whom we very happily hosted for four days, Roberto Bua and Joan Martos, it juxtaposes glamorous ladies in several contexts - fashion models in a Rousseau jungle...

...and Stefania's ancestors from the family archive alongside luxury fabrics designed to 'far bella' the lady of today. Here are Stefania and her vivacious mother Giulia beneath the wall of beauty.

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