‘The Tales Of Hoffman’ at the E.N.O. – review by Julia Pascal

It’s the Chinese box effect.  Jacques Offenbach’s fantastical opera, based on three stories by German absurdist writer ETA Hoffman, also has an imaginary  ‘Hoffman’ in the scenario.  Hoffman the writer is also ‘Hoffman’ the protagonist of each act.  First performed in 1881 in Paris, this  curious work still has  high currency.  It explores the foolishness of lust, the war between art and bourgeois living and the pull of death.

The first twenty minutes of this production are tedious.  To see ‘Hoffman’  tearing up his writing is dull.  The preamble feels like a needless warm up.  But gradually, Richard Jones’ amusing and witty  production begins to unfold into an aesthetic that is firmly rooted in Freud,  Mesmer, Darwin and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The first tale, Olympia, is what balletomanes know as Coppélia.  The invention of a female mechanical doll which excites sexual passion.  Jones’ visuals here project forward into 1950s America.  I like the way he mixes the nineteenth century with the modern,  making the point that men’s infatuation with  doll-women, is timeless.

The second tale describes Antonia’s  affair with ‘Hoffman’.  She is a  consumptive singer whose singing will kill her.  This is the most exciting of the narratives as it weighs bourgeois marriage and children against the desire for artistic satisfaction.  Here Jones stunningly evokes the world of Dr Caligari.  Mimi Jordan Sherin’s Expressionist lighting design and Giles Cadle’s set present a haunting Freudian world.

The final tale, Giulietta, takes us into the world of soul-stealing.  The prostitute Giulietta leads her male victims to a mirror (a gorgeous device) where her clients  disappear leaving only the imprint of their face.  Here Hoffman’s fascination for science and the metaphysical are brilliantly realised by Jones and his team.

Barry Banks is a strong presence as ‘Hoffman’ and is equalled by  the charismatic Georgia Jarman who plays Stella, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta.  Christine Rice as Nicklasse, Hoffman’s muse is an authentic boy in extremely fine voice.  This is a thrilling evening that puts all the curios in one beautiful box.

Julia Pascal © 2012