Arts preview: The Tales of Hoffmann

Sam Olluver

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 10:17pm

Opera Hong Kong


Opera Hong Kong and the annual Le French May Arts Festival have again teamed up to present one of the best-loved works from the catalogue of the French musical stage.

Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann opens on May 23 for a run of three performances in an Opéra de Monte-Carlo production, with Emmanuel Joel-Hornak conducting an international cast of leading singers, the Opera Hong Kong Chorus and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

Reflecting its billing as an "opéra fantastique", The Tales of Hoffmann is an immediately approachable work that has been delighting audiences since its first performance in 1881 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris.

The three acts, encased in a prologue and an epilogue, are each based on one of E.T.A. Hoffmann's stories, in which the German author himself appears as the alcohol-oiled central figure who faces amorous challenges and resident evil from tale to tale. With the singers performing multiple roles, the plot may get a bit convoluted, but the music's easy charms smooth everything out.

You may find yourself humming along to several numbers written for this opera before they became well-known as stand-alone pieces.

The lilting Barcarolle that opens Act 3 is one; another is the clockwork doll's problems with her spring mechanism in Act 1, Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille, which never fails to amuse. The latter also makes significant demands on the soprano taking the part of Olympia, played in this production by Isabelle Philippe, the French coloratura soprano noted for her impeccable technique.

Mezzo-soprano Aurhelia Varak plays the dual role of Nicklausse/La Muse and will be familiar to those who attended last year's OHK production of Carmen, when she appeared in the title role. Irish soprano Sinéad Mulhern and French natives Luca Lombardo (tenor) and Nicolas Cavallier (bass) share the stage with supporting roles played by a bevy of top local singers.

The enduring success of The Tales of Hoffmann gives little inkling of its difficult birth and development. Offenbach died before completing the work, leaving the responsibility for filling in the cracks to his colleagues, but those early workings have been constantly revised in the light of new bits of the manuscript that continue to turn up. This poses ongoing challenges for production teams, but the Opéra de Monte-Carlo staging directed by Jean-Louis Grinda is sure to please "with its mixture of modern and traditional ideas, full of imagination to reflect the story", in the words of tenor Warren Mok Wah-lun, Opera Hong Kong's founder and artistic director.

Although Mok has many years' experience of singing the title role, he won't be on this occasion, having instead taken the producer's chair.

Explaining the opera's appeal, he likens it to a modern musical with its "very lively, vivid and beautiful melodies in famous arias that remain ever popular. It really is an opéra fantastique."


HK Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, May 23-25, 7.30pm, HK$150-HK$880 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2234 0303