The Tales of Hoffman/ENO; La Boheme/Silent Opera - review

15/02/2012 11:35 GMT | Updated 15/04/2012 10:12 BST

Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman is a strange opera - It is, basically, a giant anti-climax. Richard Jones' new production of the opera is fantastical yet uneven and given the Monty Python treatment; guided by Hoffman's muse we are taken to four worlds to meet the four women Hoffman has ever loved, one a reality and the others stories.

I find errors with the writing of this opera: The first act of Hoffman is so frivolous, comic and fun whereas the latter two acts are, somewhat, disappointing in comparison - I can only assume this presents a huge difficulty to a director - If this is the case or not, the production didn't sparkle enough. Musically too, the orchestra seemed weak under conductor Antony Walker but the chorus sounded ever strong.

Our soul-troubled Hoffman, Barry Banks, sings with a poised tone that was clear and clean, glided through the opera and his muse, sang by Christine Rice, was equally as poised - they made a delectable pair. American soprano Georgia Jarman, making her UK debut, should be commended for taking on all four of Hoffman's lovers though not all roles were performed to their greatest lengths - I found many of the cadenzas unimaginatively and short and Jarman's diction was no where to be heard despite this her voice was beautiful with a command on vocal substance and tidiness; in addition to this her drama was precise as she told her stories and played her part. Clive Bayley in his devilish role was tremendous, so sinister and cunning was he with the voice to match.

A special mention must be given to Simon Butteriss, who assumed four roles in the opera, whose Soho drag queen turned toy maker's assistant, set me giggling.

Saturday night should have taken me to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to hear the latest revival of David McVicar's production of Le nozze di Figaro (Said director currently has revivals on stage in both of London's opera houses) however with a partner away on tour and Valentine's Day just around the corner I trotted off to the Widows Party instead (WAGs of a certain ensemble that are on tour that have left us) where I discovered three of the finest Recorderists I have ever heard in a gorgeous flat in the unlikely estate of Elephant and Castle - A mash up of Celine Dion's hit 'All by Myself' and 'Mary had a little lamb' will never be played so well again, if ever.

As apart of the Vault festival, Silent Opera supported by Sky Arts and Ideas Tap bring us this silent production of La Boheme at the Old Vic Tunnels - In fact it's not silent at all, the way it works is simple and effective: On entrance you are given a pair of headphones, the opera begins and Puccini's orchestration, recorded by the University of London Symphony Orchestra, is playing in your headphones while the singers sing in front of you - This allows us, as the audience, to be sat in the cold flat of Rodolfo and his skint pals or sat in the pub with a chance of flirting with the upcoming pop-star Musetta. You move with the characters and follow them round their world. At first it's odd but it becomes a thrilling physical experience.

I was impressed with the innovative technology though I must confess I'm bored of Boheme now - this has to be the fourth London fringe opera company to do a production and it's all starting to become a little bit samey.

Daisy Evans, the production's director and librettist, is unsure of the opera's setting with references to both Paris and London in her new text - when questioned she informs me it's setting is 'now' - In spite of this her direction is boutique chic - the bohemians leading the bohemians.

This is the second time I've seen Scottish tenor Alastair Digges sing Rodolfo and the second time I've disliked it - his voice is weak and uneven with no ounce of articulation; I wasn't able to understand anything he sang; he tends to sing on the wrong vowels and his higher register sounds strained and this regularly affected his intonation - can't say I'm a fan. Our Mimi, sang by Emily Ward, was fantastic; she is a pretty gal and admittedly I wasn't expected much but it turns out her voice was something quite marvellous; usually young women who sing Mimi sound shrill in their higher register however there was something so utterly charming about her vocal ability when singing these soaring melodies. Baritone Oliver Dunn, singing Marcello, has the makings of a great singer, as does his counterpart Jenny Staffod who fills Musetta's slutty boots rather well and boy can she strut!

La Boheme has an incredibly poignant ending: As Mimi lies dead in Rodolfo arms and the music ends we are taken back into another room for the curtain call though I would have just liked to have walked out: I think that would have sustained the incredible drama of the finale of that last act.

I want to see Silent Opera return with a different opera but I would encourage you to experience this new innovative way of watching opera.