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French opera leads the way this month, starting with Les contes d’Hoffmann, as Stefan Herheim’s Bregenz production is unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. Eschewing any known edition of Offenbach’s masterpiece, Herheim and conductor Johannes Debus have concocted their own crazy version – and why not? Nothing is definitive. The director sees the opera in terms of the artist as transcending sexuality, so at some point almost everyone on stage cross-dresses. The booklet sweepingly states that ‘artists want […] to be transformed and to change their sexual identity […] to become a sexual predator’. So far, so unpromising. However, Herheim and his hard-working cast do create a fascinating nightmare vision, where at some point everyone is ‘blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick’ and looks either like Divine in Pink Flamingos or, if you’re lucky, ABBA circa 1974. It’s a complex and ultimately convincing show, where Hoffmann is buffeted by his own desires, merging with his muses, who themselves blend with each other. There is no Giulietta – by this point the Nicklausse, Olympia and Antonia have become one erotic tangle. Daniel Johansson sustains the title role with much stamina, some grace and little dignity. Michael Volle dons his sequins with aplomb, has some gruff vocal moments and provides a surprisingly elegant ‘Scintille diamant’. Mandy Fredrich is an affecting Antonia, with a soaring lyric soprano that ascends with grace. One wishes she had essayed all Hoffmann’s loves, but the production precludes this, so Kerstin Avemo sings Olympia with amusingly filthy groping and some pretty filthy coloratura. Rachel Frenkel is a stalwart Nicklausse and Debus conducts with a firm beat and coaxes his cast through their various proddings and pokings. It will divide its audience, but it is a must-watch for fans.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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