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Les Contes d’Hoffmann - A Recording Review

Opera News, John Freeman Nov 1998 p70

( Critical Review of Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland studio recording of Les Contes d’Hoffmann )

the Tales of Hoffmann is one of those operas for which no definitive edition exists. What’s more, it looks as if none ever will: the story of the multilations effected by Offenbach’s colleagues and executors makes sad reading. ABC’s new recording follows the standard Choudens vocal score-uncut version, which is quite a novelty in itself-whereas London’s goes as close to Offenbach’s original as possible, eliminating most of the added recitatives, reinstating the original ending of the Venetian scene (with Giulietta dead by poison at the hands of Pitichinaccio) and turning the septet from that scene into the lost quartet for the epilogue. Since both performances are very good, listeners may find themselves choosing on the basis of which edition they prefer.

ABC offers the familiar opera house Hoffmann-grounds enough for many, since it contains more music, mostly the recitatives added by Giliraud and company. On the other hand, London’s version brings a much needed opera comique lightness to the work, which has become too heavy and grand over the years. The spoken dialogue, though it may seem excessive, does set off the musical numbers better, and the timing of the whole is more in the Offenbach spirit of the operettas.

Despite the spadework done by Richard Bonynge for the London album, we are still far from a happy solution. The orchestral reprise of the barcarolle before the epilogue, wisely left out by Julius Rudel in the ABC album, would have been all right to link the Venetian scene with the epilogue but makes little sense following the Antonia scene, which both conductors have chosen to keep in its (better) position between the Venetian scene and the epilogue. Further, though one agrees with Bonynge that the epilogue could use an en¬semble to strengthen its point, one doubts that the septet (reduced by him to a quartet) is the answer. The Venetian scene is appreciably weakened by loss of its septet, while the recurrence of the barCarole theme in the new “quartet” seems incongruous at the end of the opera.

Both performances enlist a single artist for all the leading female and bass-baritone roles. Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland are equally well qualified for their multiple assignments, having the technical ease for the doll Olympia as well as the sensuous tone for Giulietta and the pathos for Antonia. Miss Sills does sing Olympia’s music in a clearer, crisper manner, and two of her leading men, Stuart Burrows and Norman Treigle, enjoy a marginal advantage over their opposite numbers in the London cast. Burrows has a lighter, more open tone than Placido Domingo and sounds a bit more at ease in the French style and language; his Hoffmann has charm and spontaneity. Treigle has more vocal body and shading than Gabriel Bacquier in liven¬ing his portrait of the multiple villains.

The edge is small, however, and it is somewhat offset by the more animated and stylish Nicklausse of Huguette Tourangeau for London, though her ABC counterpart, Susanne Marsee, excels in the spoken lines, especially when doubling as the Muse in the prologue. (London’s recording of the Muse is too resonant.) The most important of the secondary roles, that of Crespel in the Antonia episode, is equally well handled by Paul Plishka (London) and Robert Lloyd (ABC), but the vote for a balanced cast goes to. ABC, partly because London uses Hugues Cuenod -once a fine character tenor, now reduced to faking most of his music and camping the dialogue.

ABC’s recorded sound, while better than the company’s Manon with Miss Sills, is still lackluster and benefits from a slight increase in treble setting; London in general has the sonic edge. Both Rudel and Bonynge conduct idiomatcally and are especially lively in the chorus and dance episodes. Rudel approaches the score more in the operetta tradition, Bonynge more in the French opera-ballet style, with happy rhythmic inflection in both cases.

1. Sills, Marsee, Kern; Burrows, Treigle, Castel, Dickerson, Herincx, Lloyd; Alldis Chorus, London Symphony, Rudel. ABC A TS-200i4 (3).

2. Sutherland, Tourangeau, Lilova; Domingo, Bacquier, Charon, Cue nod, Plishka; Suisse Rornande Chorus & Orchestra, Bonynge. London OSA-13106 (3).