> OFFENBACH Tales of Hoffmann [RW]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Olympia – Giulietta – Antonia – Stella – Beverly Sills (soprano)
Hoffmann - Stuart Burrows (tenor)
Lindorf – Coppélius – Dapertutto – Miracle - Norman Treigle (bass)
Nicklausse – La Muse - Susanne Marsee (mezzo)
Andrès – Spalanzani – Pitichinaccio – Frantz - Nico Castel (tenor)
Crespel – Robert Lloyd (bass)
La voix de la mère d’Antonia – Patricia Kern (soprano)
Hermann – Schlémil – Raimund Herincx (baritone)
Nathanaël – Cochenille – Bernard Dickerson (tenor)
Luther – John Noble (bass)
John Alldis Choir
London Symphony Orchestra/Julius Rudel
Recorded in London EMI Studios 1972
Westminster the Legacy 471247-2 [2CDs: 149.27]

Small signs tell big tales. The first thing one perceives while looking at the cover are four photos of Beverly Sills and none of the other soloists. And the article that takes first place in the booklet is devoted to the lady. Offenbach comes second. Now there is a reason for that decision. This is the last of the official recordings that uses the old Guiraud-version. Since then every recording has used the Oeser edition (or a mixture of Guiraud and Oeser) that contains so much more fine music while putting Mr. Guiraud’s contributions in the dustbin. Of course the clever recording companies put some of the wonderful non-Offenbach music on a separate track so that we are not without the magnificent septet. That means too that modern versions use 3 instead of 2 CDs. Therefore this is not the version purists or people wanting all of Offenbach’s music will go for in the first place.

The ‘raison d’être’ of this reissue is the demand that has long been in and around New York for the reissue of all of Beverly Sills on CD. And it is not a bad reason. Her Olympia gives us the necessary trills and embellishments though surprisingly less than Sutherland does for Decca. What strikes one is the warmth of tone, the caressing of phrases in an aria that nowadays, due to the influence of modern producers, is often sung all too mechanically with notes cut short so that ‘those dumbos in the public’ finally understand this is a doll and not a girl singing. With Sills’ very human interpretation however one understands far better Hoffmann’s strange infatuation. As Giulietta she succeeds in convincing us of the courtesan’s playfulness and it is pity that she couldn’t sing the big aria Oeser exhumed. Antonia is a natural for the American soprano. She clearly beats Joan Sutherland (in her droopy phase) and Edita Gruberova (too stiff) who tried the same feat. Indeed she is the only one who can hold her own against Renée Doria, Vina Bovy and Géori Boué in the old authentically French set of 1948. No mean feat.

The rest of the cast is not up to Sills’ level. I clearly remember the devastating review the dean of Italian critics, Rodolfo Celetti, wrote on Stuart Burrows when the set first appeared. While damning all shrieking and yelling verismo tenors Celetti wrote that the appearance of Mozart tenors like Burrows in a passionate role like Hoffmann is just as bad and wrong. On renewed hearing this strikes me as somewhat less than fair. The Welsh tenor is no Domingo (Decca and DG) and definitely no Neil Shicoff (EMI) whose neurotic (and well-sung) portrait is still the best around. But Burrows is no passive Don Ottavio either. He brings beauty of tone, has fine diminuendos, though he sometimes sings flat above the stave and he is clearly helped by the mike (but so undoubtedly is Sills) as the tenor sounds stronger than the voice I heard at the ROH. Norman Treigle takes on the four bad guys and though he works really hard in giving us all possible interpretative details, one tires of his lack of beauty in the voice, of the throaty delivery. In the house he could hold his own as he was a formidable singing actor but for records one needs an acting singer. While Sills is better or on a par with all her many successors Treigle’s competitors sing on another level. Sam Ramey (Philips) and above all José van Dam (EMI) have given us suave, threatening extremely well sung villains which will remain landmarks. Nothing but praise for the John Alldis Choir and the LSO conducted by Julius Rudel. The conductor has a feeling for well-constructed scenes, always choosing the right tempi, imbuing the opera with fire without unnecessarily driving his singers to the wall.

When this set appeared almost 30 years ago on ABC, that company had a well-deserved bad reputation for murky sound which almost destroyed any possible competition with the majors. The good news is that there was nothing wrong with the original master tapes as this reissue from Deutsche Grammophon in the Westminster legacy series (of which it originally never was part) proves.

Jan Neckers

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