Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffmann

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Offenbach
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: The Tales of Hoffmann
PERFORMER: Francisco Araiza, Jessye Norman, Samuel Ramey, Cheryl Studer, Anne Sofie von Otter, Eva Lind Leipzig Radio Chorus, Dresden Staatskapelle/Jeffrey Tate
CATALOGUE NO: 422 374-2 DDD
Hoffmann seems to grow in size each time it’s recorded. The root-cause of this confusing situation lies in the death of its composer before the opera’s premiere; the Hoffmann (re-)construction business, which began posthumously, achieving at about the turn of the century the familiar (albeit impure) form of the work, has really taken off in recent decades.

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Rediscovery of genuine Hoffmann material previously unknown has led to Fritz Oeser’s edition, used for the 1988 EMI recording conducted by Sylvain Cambreling; and now to Michael Kaye’s version, much less compromised than Oeser’s, on which the new Philips set is based.

In simple terms, the opera emerges on both these recordings considerably lengthened, with particularly enlarged roles for both Nicklaus/Muse and Giulietta, and with long-favourite numbers removed (such as Dapertutto’s ‘Diamond’ aria) that have been established as inauthentic. Unfortunately, these editorial labours seem to have resulted only in a Hoffmann implausibly distended. Most of the ‘new’ material is of middling-to-feeble quality; the best things remain the familiar ones, but even their charms seem diminished amid the acres of padding.

Certainly, the case for an enlarged Hoffmann is not well argued by Tate’s dull-spirited performance. Like the EMI set it suffers central problems of style: un-Gallicly heavy conducting, casting from record-company current favourites who each prove a liability (Norman an impossibly heavy Antonia, Studer a tidy but unsensual Giulietta, Lind a scrawny-voiced Olympia), and a mistreatment of the French language which renders much of the ‘new’ spoken dialogue a trial. Good points include the lustrous tone (and fine French) of Von Otter’s Nicklaus and the immaculate (if somewhat characterless) singing line of Ramey’s four villains. In the title role Araiza, at least, attempts to woo the listener with tonal caresses, though under pressure he sounds effortful.

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For a genuinely vital account of this eternally fascinating demi-masterpiece, Decca’s 1972 recording (with Domingo and Sutherland) remains hard to beat – and to hell with editorial purity! Max Loppert