Roberto Alagna (Hoffmann); José van Dam (Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto); Natalie Dessay (Olympia); Leontina Vaduva (Antonia); Sumi Jo (Giulietta); Juanita Lascarro (Stella); Catherine Dubosc (Nicklausse/Muse); Gilles Ragon (Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio); Michel Sénéchal (Spalanzani); Gabriel Bacquier (Crespel); Doris Lamprecht (La Mère); and Ludovic Tézier, Jean-Marie Frémeau, Benoît Boutet, Jean Delescluse, Gérard Théruel, Christophe Lacassagne and Marc Fournier. Kent Nagano conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra National de Lyon (3 cds).
Contes d'Hoffmann is by any stretch of the imagination a problem opera. Offenbach died before the premiere and the work was shorn of the Giulietta Act along with other cuts to keep the performance within reasonable limits. The revival in Monte Carlo early this century under the aegis of Raoul Gunsbourg (also the man responsible for the notion that Berlioz' Damnation de Faust could be staged) produced the version most familiar to us today, with certain pieces not even by Offenbach. When much of the original material became available, Fritz Oeser prepared an edition said to be in conformity with the composer's intentions. (Why he was ever selected is one of the musical world's unelucidated mysteries considering the botched job he did with Carmen.) It is the assiduous research of Michael Kaye which has given us the performance under review, the second to make use of his work. If you wish to know as much as there is to be known about the Hoffmann material, look at the issue of L'Avant-Scène Opéra devoted to Hoffmann, which includes an explanatory table of the material included in the various performing versions.
Hoffmann is much more a work in which conductor and producer have a free hand, as they must decide between a dialogue and a recitative version, how much of the Prologue to restore, how important to make the role of Nicklausse. The other major problem is the Giulietta act which is the least "authentic" of the three. If we follow Kaye and even Oeser in their proposals, it is much more apparent that the three female roles were to be sung by a single soprano. In the Erato recording, made over an 18-month period, Alagna is in good shape, possibly the only tenor since Nicolai Gedda able to sing the role with style and panache. He is well surrounded by an impeccable José van Dam as the villain, Natalie Dessay, Leontina Vaduva and Sumi Jo as his three loves and such stalwarts as Gabriel Bacquier, Michel Sénéchal and Gilles Ragon. Only the Nicklausse of Catherine Dubosc poses a problem, her voice totally colorless in a role which demands a greater presence than she is able to provide. Kent Nagano and the Lyon Opera Orchestra offer excellent support, Nagano maintaining a light touch throughout. Sumi Jo is especially naughty, copying Natalie Dessay's cadenza note for note, both extraordinary as they hit an unwritten high A flat, Jo having a fuller role in which to make an even greater impact. Vaduva is not impeccable vocally, but her commitment makes this an excellent rendition of a role which has rarely been well served on recording.