Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann conducted by Johannes Debus and directed by Stefan Herheim

Our rating 
2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Offenbach
ALBUM TITLE: Offenbach
WORKS: Les Contes d’Hoffmann
PERFORMER: Kerstin Avemo, Mandy Fredrich, Rachel Frenkel, Daniel Johansson, Michael Volle, Christophe Mortagne; Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Johannes Debus; dir. Stefan Herheim (Bregenz, 2015)
CATALOGUE NO: 735508; Blu-ray: 735604


Offenbach’s final work is notoriously tricky to stage, partly because of its unwieldy format – it contains three separate narratives with different settings and characters, plus a prologue and epilogue linking everything together – but mostly because the composer died leaving it incomplete. Ever since its first public staging in 1881, repeated attempts have been made to draw its musical threads together into something coherent, though this has inevitably involved a certain amount of cutting and pasting, as well as (in at least one instance) free composition. Even the discovery over recent decades of more and more of Offenbach’s authentic original material has, if anything, tended to complicate the issue further.

Drawing on a recent edition prepared by Offenbach experts Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, director Stefan Herheim and conductor Johannes Debus have effectively come up with their own version, which includes one traditional number transferred to the score from another work by Offenbach, and even one not composed by him at all.

Dramatically, the result has none of the focus of Herheim’s famed Bayreuth Parsifal, which really put the director on the international map back in 2010. The liner note describes the staging as ‘deliberately confusing’. Hoffmann’s current love Stella is played as a transvestite, Giulietta is sung by two singers, while Olympia (again to quote the notes), ‘proves exceptionally flexible in sexual matters’. Frankly, it’s not easy either to follow the action or to see what Herheim is attempting to convey.

The singing has more positive qualities: Daniel Johansson is a strong yet lyrical Hoffmann, Michael Volle the solid exponent of the four villains who dog the drunken writer’s footsteps, Mandy Fredrich a vivid Antonia and Christophe Mortagne imaginative in his tripled-up character-tenor roles. Debus conducts a lively account. But taken as a whole this is not a Hoffmann to recommend.


George Hall