Irish National Opera at Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, on 18 September 2018

Irish National Opera’s latest production, now on tour around the country, makes its first stop in suburban Dún Laoghaire, with the Pavilion Theatre full to capacity on this sunny autumn evening. Jacques Offenbach was, as director Tom Creed reminds us ‘a theatre man’, and this, his last opera, celebrates theatricality through every pore. It raises questions about what we—and the characters within it—see, testing the boundaries between reality and perception, in an opera full of stories. Creed sets the work simply, in a kind-of present: mixing the now we know with the future imagined for us a few decades ago, complete with technology that mostly works and far more colourful daywear than we allow ourselves (with superb costumes designed by Katie Davenport).

Imagining E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales as autobiographical, even confessional, the opera turns three of his stories into anecdotes, as Hoffmann himself (played by an energetic Julian Hubbard) recounts his romantic history in a basement bar, while his beloved Stella (Claudia Boyle) is elsewhere. Whether he’s being literal or schematic—are these three separate women, or three facets of Stella herself?—is left wide open especially when, as here, they’re all played by the same person. This is an opera where identities can slip and slide. Claudia Boyle’s exceptional musicianship and stage-presence are vital: her robotic Olympia (played here as a cross between the machine-person of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and a Japanese anime sex robot) is pitch-perfect, musically and theatrically, and her performance of the coloratura ‘doll song’ is superb. This energy and colour is sustained through Boyle’s other creations: the tragic Antonia, the infernal Giulietta, and finally, Stella herself.

Likewise playing four characters with a common thread, John Molloy combines his comic intelligence with a sure instinct for the absurd in his collection of dark-voiced villains. His Dr Miracle proves especially destabilising, and when he supplements his white latex coat with the addition of high heels, suspenders and a wig (in order to channel Antonia’s mother), the drag-horror-vision is rendered with cruel brilliance. Accompanying Hoffmann through this drug-fuelled phantasmagoria is the deft presence of Gemma Ní Bhriain’s Nicklausse, her mezzo voice clear, fresh and with wit to spare. As well as ‘principal boy’ and the protagonist’s pal, the role doubles as Hoffmann’s muse, though this side of the character is perhaps less in evidence here. Other cameos come and go all too quickly, notably Brendan Collins’ tragic Crespel, and the beautiful Voice of Carolyn Holt.

This work reflects on opera as much as being one itself, and there are some wonderful moments—like the improvised can-can rehearsal in the third act—when the staging really begins to fly. The unfussy, almost minimal set provides a flexible framework for the action, brought to life with Sinéad McKenna’s sensitive lighting design. Tucked away in front of the stage, the small instrumental ensemble, directed from the piano by Andrew Synnott, set a warm and intimate atmosphere, and occasional moments of solo clarinet or horn add touches of pure colour, enhancing the understated effect of Synnott’s arrangement. Fluent, smart, at times surprising, this is a production that achieves much in a small frame, and makes one wonder what its full potential could be.

Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffmann
Sung in French (libretto by Jules Barbier), with English surtitles
Director: Tom Creed; Set & Costume Designer: Katie Davenport; Lighting Designer: Sinéad McKenna; Conductor: Andrew Synnott
Cast: Julian Hubbard (Hoffmann); Claudia Boyle (Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella); Gemma Ní Bhriain (Nicklausse); John Molloy (Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr Miracle/Dapertutto); Andrew Gavin (Andrès/Cochenille/Franz/Pitchinaccio); Brendan Collins (Crespel/Chorus); Carolyn Holt (The Voice/Chorus); Fearghal Curtis (Spalanzani/Chorus); Kevin Neville (Schlemil/Chorus); Peter O’Reilly (Nathanaël/Chorus); Cormac Lawlor (Hermann/Chorus); Robert McAllister (Luther/Chorus); Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Corina Ignat, Martha O’Brien, Conor Breen (Chorus)

Performances nationwide to 6 October