Claudia Boyle is ready to take on one of the most demanding soprano roles in the world of opera, writes Cathy Desmond
IRISH National Opera mines the tuneful, haunted, sometimes demonic world of French composer Jacques Offenbach’s problematic masterpiece, The Tales of Hoffmann for its big autumn touring production.
Offenbach was 19th-century France’s greatest composer of the lighter genre of operetta. Dubbed the Mozart of Les Champs-Élysées by Rossini, his catchy ‘Can Can’ from Orpheus in the Underworld was the signature tune of 19th century Paris music halls.
Unfortunately, Offenbach didn’t live to put the finishing touches to his sole fully-fledged opera. Despite his written appeals to the director of the Opera-Comique to get a move on as he had a premonition he had not long to live, Offenbach died, it is said, with the manuscript in his hand just months before the opening.
Before you get down to the nitty-gritty of staging, there is a problem for any company mounting a production of The Tales of Hoffmann. There is no definitive version.
For this touring production, director Tom Creed and conductor Andrew Synnott have spent a lot of time researching the different versions, taking account of the latest research to make a version coming in at around three hours.
“People who know and love the opera will find the tunes they know and love there but also hear some music they haven’t heard before. For example, we add a duet between Stella and Hoffmann in the last act that changes how we view that relationship quite substantially in the opera.”
The work is based on three macabre stories by the Romantic German writer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, with the author himself the protagonist in the stories. Each deals with a failed love affair, the first an entanglement with a mechanical singing doll, the second involving a singer afflicted with a malady that means she will die if she dares to sing, the third an infatuation with a Venetian courtesan.
And of course there’s also Stella, the woman he is in love with at the moment. Anyone familiar with Creed’s work won’t expect to see quaint 19th century costumes. For example, his setting of Puccini’s Suor Angelica looked very like a Magdalene Laundry and his Owen Wingrave was a very modern reading of a 19th century ghost story .
“I am interested in trying to find active contemporary equivalents that are very close to the reference points in Offenbach’s original libretto but freshened up so that the full scenes look like they do now in the world,” says the Corkman.
“It is worth saying that of the things that were on peoples’ minds in the 19th century, one was technology. We’d come through the industrial revolution and how we worked, lived, communicated and moved around had changed utterly. People were starting to think about what the next frontiers in science and technology might be.
“In the same context we had creations like Frankenstein where humanity and technology work together. In philosophy, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were creating new visions of imagining how the self existed in relation to the world and morality. Freud would soon publish his pioneering work on psychoanalysis in Vienna.”
Creed and co also considered Netflix series Black Mirror as a reference point for when the horrifying consequences of media and technology come into play.
In Creed’s vision of the Olympia story, Spalanzani’s laboratory becomes a tech start up company during a new product launch. The Antonia scene is set in a modern hospital. We’re still in Venice for the Guilietta Act but here Creed sets it at a modern Venice Biennale, with Guilietta a modern day performance artist in the style of Marina Abramovic at an exhibition opening.
One of the challenges for designer Katie Davenport is to create different identities for a cast of 16 singers playing multiple roles. While the bundle of villainous roles cause few qualms for baritones, it takes a particularly versatile soprano to sing all four roles of Hoffmann’s amours.
Recent productions at the Met and the ROH have split the roles between several singers. Taking on the challenge considered among the most difficult in the soprano repertoire is Claudia Boyle.
The Dubliner has been busy forging a career on the international scene since emerging from the Salzburg Young Artist programme in 2010. Debuts in Rome, London and Berlin have gathered her rave reviews and she has been a regular visitor to London’s ENO, most recently starring in a production of Verdi’s Traviata.
As she relaxes in her suburban Dublin home after rehearsals, she muses on the parallels of singing her roles in Hoffmann with those of the different phases of the tragic Violetta.
“It is true, even though, it is one character, Verdi writes the part in the three acts so differently. In Hoffmann, Olympia is a high coloratura soprano with stratospheric lines whereas Antomia is a more lyric soprano with gorgeous nostalgic tender lines.
“Generally, more dramatic lyrical sopranos take on the role of Giulietta. It requires an edge in the middle of the voice and the coloratura is quite different to that of Olympia.”
Add in that fiendishly difficult duet for Stella and Hoffmann, it all adds up to a big sing for Boyle.
The Dubliner took a detour to the stage through the orchestra pit, taking her first degree in cello before switching to voice.
Although well used to the grandest opera houses, Boyle sounds thrilled at the prospect of travelling around the country with an Irish cast to more modest provincial venues.
“I feel it is so important to bring a masterpiece to people who can’t travel. Not only does it make it more accessible but I think there is a huge benefit in a more up-close and personal experience with the singers in the more intimate venues than if you are standing say in the gods in Covent Garden. I think it will be a big help for an audience to digest a complex story like this.”
For a singer with such an international profile, Boyle is also relishing the simple pleasure of going home after work. Also looking forward to coming home is director Creed who grew up on the Mardyke in Cork.
“I am always excited to have the opportunity to present work at home in Cork where I started out. It is fantastic to be coming to the Everyman Theatre. I think the show will be really exciting in that room.”
The Tales of Hoffmann, sung in French with English surtitles, opens in Dublin’s O’Reilly Theatre tomorrow for two performances, with Munster dates on a nationwide tour including Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, Sept 22; Everyman, Cork, Sept 25; Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, Sept 27