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December 2005, vol 70, no. 6


 VIENNA – Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Schauspielhaus, 9/13/05


A daptations of operas for musical theater are usually accompanied by proclamations of hope for creating new audiences for the source material: “Now that you’ve seen Rent/Miss Saigon/Kismet, you really should see La Bohème/Madama Butterfly/Prince Igor. (Maybe I’m stretching a bit on that last one.)

Perhaps Barrie Kosky’s treatment of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (seen September 13) is meant to have an opposite effect: it should send streams of operagoers to the tiny theater of the Schauspielhaus in Vienna’s Ninth District, where Kosky has served as co-artistic director since 2001.

The thirty-eight-year-old Australian knows his stuff: he has fashioned a 170-minute fantasia on Hoffmann from Offenbach’s music, augmented by some Mozart, Schumann and Parton (Dolly), arranged for a seven-piece orchestra, in which he goes at the piano like a latter-day Jerry Lee Lewis in a raucous, klezmer-infused “Kleinzach.”

Anyone would find this Hoffmann immensely entertaining, but those familiar with the opera will be better equipped to get all the jokes and references. Kosky further retains the grotesque, surreal qualities of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann stories.

Each act opens with Hoffmann asleep, dreaming of his ideal women and never very far from his nemeses. Nicklausse is quite obviously a woman in a man’s suit with a fake moustache. Automaton Olympia (assembled with the aid of a staple gun) is a pole dancer for an audience of sexual deviates who pay to have Polaroids taken with her. She scat-sings the coloratura portions of her aria, serves coffee, lights cigarettes and gives Hoffmann’s shoes a spit-shine.

Antonia, barely whispering her opening aria, shares her hospital bed with Crespel, who is on a respirator. Miracle sits by machines monitoring vitals signs that beep disconcertingly throughout the act. A quartet of nurses offers Frantz’s little ditty in the style of the Comedian Harmonists. Antonia’s mother is conjured as an aging jazz diva who interpolates a torch song.

Hoffmann and Schlémil (done up as Shanghai Lil in Footlight Parade) play Russian roulette at a whorehouse (complete with a midnight cowboy) where Pitichinaccio, a monstrous old woman, regales the company with ribald non sequiturs. In one of several renditions of the “Barcarole,” the madam and her transvestite son work up an R&B/gospel frenzy. After the inconclusive sextet, Hoffmann and his nemesis offer a tender, pianissimo “Là ci darem la mano” as Hoffmann is sealed in his coffin.

Swarthy, handsome Ramin Dustdar sings most of Hoffmann’s music as written, in a sweet, plangent pop tenor. Dustdar commands the action with his uninhibited physicality, versatile, expressive face and a pair of eyes that twinkle with joy and burn with sorrow and disillusion.

Ruth Brauer moves from Yma Sumac vocal insanity as Olympia to heartrending innocence as Antonia to glamorous evil as Giulietta. Cast against type, Martin Niedermair is a sexy, blond devil, brimming with sarcasm and delivering an unforgettable “Scintille, diamant” in otherworldly, erotic head tone.

But it is Kosky’s multifaceted genius that steals the show. His impending Wiener Staatsoper debut (a new Lohengrin) is now even more anxiously anticipated.


Copyright © OPERA NEWS 2005