Was it a deliberate decision on the part of the West Australian Opera to open this very French opera on Bastille Day? At any rate, one of the benefits of the performance was an admirable clarity in French diction, albeit the dialogue was recited in English. The shifting between two languages was rather more discombobulating here than in a baroque opera, where the distinction between recitative and aria is more clear cut. As for the production overall, already seen in Sydney and Adelaide, it is definitely a crowd pleaser, but it fails to plumb any great depths.
The production, by Stuart Maunder, is a model of attention to superficial detail. Elements of the comic, grotesque and spectacular are given prominence and no opportunity for extravagant display is missed. While there are some scenes of dramatic strength, there is no hint of an over-arching vision or concept of what the opera might actually be about. In the final scene, the revelation that Stella might represent all three women in Hoffmann’s tales is hardly staggering in this post-Freudian age, and the Romantic concept of Hoffmann needing to return to his Muse is skimmed over.
Each scene is given due specificity in terms of costumes and settings, all on a revolve which moves each scene smoothly into the next. In the prelude, Hoffmann’s muse, in large tiered skirt is transformed into the suave Nicklausse with the help of onstage dressers. The bar scene is well depicted, with a backdrop of lights and bar behind tables and chairs among which some clever choreography moves the chorus and soloists about. It is unfortunate that this production dates to the year 2007, when everything at the Sydney Opera House was apparently obliged to feature an overhead mirror, a great distraction here. The Olympia scene is especially fun, with a steampunk sensibility brought to bear on the workshop of Spalanzani. A transformation cabinet with brass fittings is set within a larger piece of clunky mechanism, and spare parts for life-size dolls are hung about the set. The chorus consists of doll-like figures, and Cochenille’s garments underneath his lab coat suggest he is one of these. Instead of being wound up by a key, Olympia is revved up by the application of a species of fibrillator.
The Giulietta scene follows, preceding the Antonia scene – a somewhat controversial decision, but dramatically effective here. No cliché of a night in Venice is ignored, with variously costumed carnivalistas wandering about. More effective is the Antonia scene. It opened, after the interval, with a ghostly Antonia behind a scrim, all white and silver light. A great coup de théâtre in the original Opera Australia production had Antonia’s mother burst upwards through a grand piano; for some reason, this couldn’t be done in Perth (perhaps the small stage at His Maj?), and instead she visibly entered from the back and walked up a ramp to the top of the piano.
Musically, it was a generally enjoyable evening, but somewhat patchy. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra was conducted by UK-based Lionel Friend, who previously in Perth led a musically memorable Tristan und Isolde (2006). He seemed less at home with Hoffmann, perhaps not in his usual repertoire. The opening was a bit sluggish, but the playing was competent throughout while not really rising above that. The choir was comfortable with its complex blocking, but was perhaps not as crisp as in Tosca earlier this year
The major drawcard was soprano Rachelle Durkin as all four heroines, a great hometown favourite. She is a striking stage presence, with a huge outgoing personality and voice to match, at least in size. Her tall rangy frame made the most of the extravagant costumes. Durkin’s rather wild singing with salient vibrato and rather shrieky high notes is perceived as thrilling by many, but some of us would prefer more secure intonation and cleaner coloratura. With respect to her multiple roles, Rachelle tends always to be Rachelle, but she did manage some element of demureness as Antonia, in manner if not voice. As Olympia, she was as usual messy in the coloratura, but in non-voice terms the role suited her down to the ground, with much mugging, including an alarming crossing of the eyes, and mimed football (Australian Rules of course) moves. It need hardly be said that the audience loved it all.
Catherine Carby as the muse/Nicklausse was a very svelte figure and attractive presence. Her voice is warm, even mellow, with quite a bright tone for a mezzo. The aria “Vois sous l'archet frémissant” in the Antonia scene was well sung but a little bland; her beautiful voice just seems to lack sufficient light and shade. The Barcarolle served as a transition from Olympia to Giulietta; the voices of Durkin and Carby did not blend quite as one would have wished.
Tenor Rosario La Spina has been singing the title role all over Australia, and addresses it with confidence and resonance. His singing is less forced than it used to be, with more evident squillo but not much delicacy. He seemed to flag a bit in the Antonia scene, but it is a large role. While convincing as a despairing lover, his is not quite believable as a poet.
Perhaps the best singing of the night came from James Clayton as Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto and Dr Miracle. His voice has conceivably reached its peak, a resonating bronze instrument with excellent phrasing and articulation. “Scintille diamante” was a tour de force, with beautifully judged legato and caressing of the words. Perth’s other leading bass-baritone, Andrew Foote, combined the roles of Luther, Spalanzani and Crespel with carefully distinguished portrayals of each role, bringing special conviction to Spalanzani’s looniness. Tenor Adrian McEniery was an entertaining Cochenille, as well as singing Nathanäel, Pittichanaccio and Frantz with bright tone. Robert Hoffmann was Hermann and Schlémil with forceful if somewhat pitch-uncertain singing.
In the small role of Antonia’s mother (why is she so mean?), Sarah-Janet Brissenden sang with sufficient force to equal that of her “daughter”, and the trio with Dr Miracle was intense and gripping, perhaps the most satisfyingly dramatic moment of the night, with a touch of real operatic dementia.