October 20, 2008 / 10:21 AM / 10 years ago

Geneva mixes art, sex and death in Hoffmann opera

GENEVA (Reuters Life!) - A new production of the Tales of Hoffmann at Geneva’s Grand Theater creates a mix of art, sex and death in an unusually nightmarish and nihilistic reading of Jacques Offenbach’s opera.

Artistes perform in a new production of the Tales of Hoffmann at Geneva's Grand Theatre in an undated photo. REUTERS/Isabelle Meister/GTG/Handout

Conservative opera audiences are often scandalized by modern productions featuring sex on stage, complaining that directors are forcing their own personal vision on the work.

But judging by the applause and cheering at Sunday’s premiere, French director Olivier Py showed that sex and nudity can work if they are true to the spirit of the opera.

“Art, sex and death — this is where all great works have to end up. But this necessarily banal trilogy is painted in unique colors in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann,” Py wrote in a program note.

A strong cast, foremost among them the Belgian tenor Marc Laho in the title role, also fueled the audience’s enthusiasm.

Hoffmann is the third piece in the Devil’s Trilogy — a mini-festival mounted by Geneva of operas featuring the devil.

Earlier this month Py, the director of the Odeon theater in Paris, staged new productions of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischuetz and Hector Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust for Geneva.


Offenbach is best known for jolly operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld with its famous can-can.

Hoffmann intended to show that he could do serious opera too. But he died while it was still in rehearsal, and it was premiered in 1881 five months after his death.

It is based on the work of the German Romantic poet and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose fantastic tales were all the rage in early 19th century Europe.

The opera makes Hoffmann the protagonist in his own stories, endlessly outwitted in love by a diabolic figure re-appearing in different guises.

Unlike the fairy-tales and forests of early German Romanticism, Hoffmann’s fantastic stories have a much more modern feel, showing man at odds with society.

He also evokes a very 21st century fear of technology, as in The Sandman, the story of a scientist who builds a lifelike automaton with whom the hero falls in love — a theme echoed in Ridley Scott’s cult film Blade Runner.

That tale is used in the opera, and Hoffmann becomes obsessed with the beautiful doll Olympia.

In conventional productions Olympia sings and dances in a Victorian dress, but Py puts her center-stage stark-naked — making the point that she is an object of desire to Hoffmann and the other guests at the scientist’s soiree.

The last of the tales is set in Venice, opening with the languorous barcarolle, one of Offenbach’s most famous pieces.

Here Py mounts an orgy on stage at the house of the courtesan Giulietta, who seduces men to steal their shadows and reflections for the devil. Her house is both brothel and gambling den.

Artistes perform in a new production of the Tales of Hoffmann at Geneva's Grand Theatre in an undated photo. REUTERS/Isabelle Meister/GTG/Handout

Py repeats images from the other two operas, with a woman dressed only in black stockings and a skull mask marching across the stage, conflating sex and death.

With its drinking songs, ball scenes and student choruses, Tales of Hoffmann could easily be seen as easy-listening light opera. But Py’s use of sliding sets, light and reflection creates a nightmare atmosphere.

At the end, Hoffmann, a victim of alcohol abuse, realizes he will never be lucky in love and is left with only his art as consolation.

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