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Bringing a classic into focus: The challenges of reviving Les Contes d’Hoffmann

With gigantic sets and rail-upon-rail of luxurious costumes, John Schlesinger’s sumptuous production is one of the toughest to stage in the repertory.

By Rev. Sarah Lenton (Writer and lecturer)

21 November 2016 at 9.58am | 5 Comments

‘I love it. I love how it’s set, I love how the costumes are done – there is Venice. There are gondolas – I love it!’ That’s Yuriy Yurchuk, playing Schlemil in the revival of John Schlesinger’s classic production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which had its premiere at the Royal Opera House in 1980.

Only two thirds of the set can be accommodated in Opera Rehearsal Room 1 as the cast rehearse Act I, but it’s immediately apparent how solid it is: three levels, four flights of stairs to thunder down, gigantic beer barrels, proper German beer mugs and the noise of students banging tables and stamping on the floor.

Schlesinger famously wanted to show the dark side of Hoffmann and, even in this cheerful tavern scene, demonic forces are clearly at work. Vittorio Grigòlo in the title role says of his character, ‘Hoffmann has a lot of deep colours inside the script and in his soul – especially in this production, which has been going so many years and has so much to tell and say!’

So what is it about this production? How does it pull it off?

The first thing to strike the critics back in 1980 was the look of the piece, particularly the magnificent costumes. ‘All the sumptuous costuming money can buy’, as the New York Times said – something that Mary Fisher, Head of the Running Wardrobe, remembers very well:

'The costumes were fantastically well made, at a time when we had a lot of money – they’re appliqué after appliqué, the trim, everything. It’s quite 1980s – if you see it close to, you think it’s the kitchen curtains – but the moment it’s out on stage it looks fabulous! The designer Maria (Björnson) was absolutely brilliant.'

Yet, in spite of the scale, sometimes less is more. This becomes particularly apparent as John Charlton and Nicola van der Wert from the lighting department talk through their enormous sheaf of lighting cues. It’s very easy to be overcome by the technical demands of Hoffmann: four follow spot operators (‘we should have six!’) and the continuous following throughout the show: ‘It’s one of the toughest shows we do’. It’s all done from the lighting box ensconced in the Opera House’s blue and gold ceiling.

It’s completely black up there, with low-slung beams and four lamps, like baby cannons, looming on heavy frames. The operators balance them on their shoulders, resting against their left cheek with their left arm round the other side and the right hand controlling the angle and focus. There are some fearsome levers to control the colour change slides and, looking at the size of the lamps, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they must flood the stage with light.

‘Yes, modern directors think that’, says Nicola. ‘They expect follow spots to be like something from Chicago. Bang! White light with a hard edge. But we’re much more subtle than that. We use our spots to pull people’s faces up.’ John added that the follow spots are 32 metres away from the front of the stage, so the slightest movement is instantly detectable. Which prompted the question, what happens if your hand shakes? Nicola: ‘You get another job!’

Back in the rehearsal room, revival director Dan Dooner was using lighting metaphors to explain his approach to directing:

'It’s about understanding the difficulties the people have in playing these parts. How to make the shifts in colour as you help people tell the story I want to tell. It’s often down to technique, getting them to stay focussed on the person they’re meant to be watching.'

Luther’s tavern seems so normal – the beer, the horseplay, Jeremy White looking avuncular as the landlord – but to Hoffmann the people there are archetypes. Lindorf is the man who always blocks his path, Stella an incarnation of every woman he’s lost. Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) spent a lot of time exploring this angle on the show with Dan:

'The way we see it is that Nicklausse and the villains are parts of Hoffmann’s psyche. Nicklausse is the voice of reason, and the villains are the voices in your head telling you, you’ll never be able to do it, you’re a fraud. We all deal with that, especially artists. And they speak to us even more when we’re struggling creatively.'

It’s this demonic energy that drives the show, from Hoffmann himself through Nicklausse, Dr Miracle, Coppélius, even Antonia, and certainly the half-dead Schlemil.

Back to Yuriy Yurchuk: ‘There I am, half a person, lingering between this world and the next and it’s the precision, the attention to detail, that helps me to believe it. To engage – to tell the audience a story.’ Just what E.T.A. Hoffmann was famous for.

This is an edited extract from Sarah Lenton’s article ‘Spot on!’, printed in full in The Royal Opera’s programme book for Les Contes d’Hoffmann, available at the Royal Opera House during performances.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs 7 November–3 December 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 15 November 2016. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet and Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston.

This article has 5 comments

  1. I love this production and very sad that it's going to be retired. Will there be a DVD?

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 22 November 2016 at 12:08pm

      Hi Ann,

      No DVD has yet been confirmed, but watch this space!



  2. Ann O'Shaughnessy responded on 23 November 2016 at 2:02pm Reply

    I do hope you will decide to issue a DVD. Like Copley's La Boheme, this is too beautiful to be lost to those of us who love traditional productions.

  3. Kenneth Greener responded on 6 December 2016 at 5:30pm Reply

    Not able to see.the production so I do hope a DVD will be produced.

  4. Marianna Lutyens responded on 26 January 2017 at 4:39pm Reply

    Dear Sarah Lenton, I got your name from the NADFAS Farnham Programme. I am the programme organiser for the Overton U3A and am wondering if you would be at all prepared to give your talk about Christmas at Covent Garden..... to our members on Wednesday, 20 December 2017 at 10.00am.
    Thank you for your yes or no.
    Marianna Lutyens

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