Taiwan's Jingo has achieved a hit with a stupendous version of Offenbach's opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). Recorded at the Opera National de Paris-Bastille in 2002, it now appears complete with Chinese subtitles. With Neil Shicoff as Hoffmann and Bryn Terfel as a sequence of evil schemers, this is one of the most colorful and engrossing opera DVDs I've come across for a long time. It looks sumptuous, but is at the same time lively, funny, and true to the spirit of the music - part serious and part farcical.
Robert Carsen's production places the action in different parts of a theater. He concocts his most notable effect for the famous "barcarolle" where he offers a mirror-image of the auditorium, only with alternate rows of seats swinging from side to side - appropriate as a barcarolle was originally a rocking melody supposedly sung by Venetian gondoliers. The extravagantly-dressed "audience," however, is engaged in a minor orgy, licking their drinks off each others' chests and more. It's a pity the music is too short to support an idea so rich in possibilities for longer.
There are many other pleasures. Shicoff proves both lively and sympathetic in the title role, and Terfel is eye-grabbing as the evil geniuses (even though they're visually indistinguishable). Susanne Mentzer is excellent as Nicklausse, though her costumes are unflattering. As for the women Hoffmann pursues, Desiree Rancatore is brilliant as a singing Barbie doll, Ruth Ann Swensen appropriately loving as Antonia, and Beatrice Uria-Monzon charmingly deceptive as Giulietta.
The reason this version is so pleasurable is that it's strong both musically and theatrically. Terfel can be relied on in both areas, and the rest of the cast effortlessly follows suit. Les Contes d'Hoffmann is never quite the white elephant it sometimes seems on the verge of becoming, and this production converted me to it as never before. If you don't know it, this fine pair of DVDs would be an ideal place to remedy the omission.
LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN
Directed by Robert Carsen
Shicoff, Terfel, Rancatore, Swensen etc
Japan's Bunraku puppet theater, in which figures three-quarters life-size are manipulated by fully visible handlers, is one of the world's most astonishing performing art forms. The accompanying music, crucial to the curious effect, is provided by a player on the three-stringed shamisen, though there's some discrete drumming as well. Both dialogue and narration are spoken by a senior actor who squeaks, sings, growls and sobs his way through the text. Three shamisen-players and three actors traditionally take turns at this exhausting work.
Video Artists International has issued a film of one complete Bunraku performance, The Lovers' Exile, written by the 17th century master dramatist Monzaemon Chikamatsu. At 90 minutes it's shorter than most examples of the form but utterly absorbing nonetheless. Chubei, a penniless clerk, is in love with Umegawa, a girl from the city's pleasure quarter. The fugitive lovers, braving snow and a barking dog, go to Chubei's ancestral village. There his tart comments - "that's the acupuncturist, treated my mother, killed her actually" - lead up to the crucial scene in which Umegawa confronts Chubei's father even as their pursuers are closing in.
The film was made in 1979 and the participants, both on set and in the accompanying booklet, show just how widespread admiration for Bunraku was among Western intellectuals at the time. Luminaries such as Susan Sontag, Jean-Louis Barrault, Ian Buruma, Northrop Frye and Donald Richie all contribute in one way or another to this product.