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Why did Schlesinger’s production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann hog the headlines?

Sex scenes, scandal and sensational headlines: the ROH Collections team delve into the archives to uncover the buzz around this iconic production, 36 years on from its premiere.

By Laura Brown (Former Archivist, ROH Collections)

28 November 2016 at 5.36pm | 2 Comments

The Royal Opera’s 1980 production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann was declared a success by critics after its premiere, and its 36-year run has been testament to its enduring appeal. We’ve delved in to our archives to look back at the immense anticipation that surrounded the production and the press’s reception after the premiere.

The Covent Garden production was part of nationwide commemorations – organized by the Offenbach 1980 Committee – to mark the centenary of both Offenbach’s death and of the world premiere of his most enduring work Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Anticipation for Hoffmann started building as early as May 1979, when the press started to report that Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger was seriously considering an offer to direct the production, and that star tenor Plácido Domingo was also ‘mulling over’ an invitation to join.

Agnes Baltsa and the Duchess of Kent at the post-performance party after the premiere of Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1980) in the Crush Room, Royal Opera House. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © 1980 ROH

Schlesinger and The Royal Opera had been trying to work together for some years, on Salome and Carmen, but schedules never quite aligned. In an interview with The Times after the premiere, Schlesinger confessed that much of the persuasion to direct Hoffmann came from Domingo’s involvement, particularly as previous plans to work together on Carmen had not come to fruition.

Schlesinger, himself a devoted opera fan, wanted to make Hoffmann work dramatically in the face of all the known problems with the opera. The Evening Standard quotes him saying ‘of course, it is a problem piece but it is very theatrical and I am looking forward to it’.

The production was grabbing headlines well before its premiere. The Daily Mail sensationally reported ‘a sex scene at the opera’ after two dancers revealed they ‘simulate love-making on a pile of cushions’ in one scene. A spokesperson for the Royal Opera House courteously replied, ‘nobody can say for sure what the production will be like… because it is still evolving’. The star power of Schlesinger and singers Domingo, Ileana Cotrubas, Agnes Baltsa and Geraint Evans, as well as beautiful costumes by Maria Björnson and magnificent sets by William Dudley, meant that expectations were high.

Despite these sensational headlines, the premiere attracted a whole host of notable audience members: in attendance were Offenbach’s great-grandsons James Buckley and Michel Brindejont, Shadow Foreign Secretary Denis Healey, former Prime Minister Edward Heath and the Duke and Duchess of Kent. And indeed, the performance dazzled most that saw it – The Observer described it as ‘magnificently sung, resplendently set and superbly staged’ and the Daily Mail loved it, describing it as ‘bizarre, but a cracker’. The illusion of the doll Olympia falling apart particularly caught The Guardian’s eye, describing it as ‘a genuinely eerie piece of theatre’.

In 2016 Schlesinger’s production might not raise eyebrows as it once did – but it entertains, delights and enchants as much as it always has.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs until 3 December 2016. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet and Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Stevie responded on 29 November 2016 at 11:54pm Reply

    Unbelievable, we have our expectations elevated to new heights and expectations, we are then taken through all the high extremes of pleasure in this performance. We believe we must see this again in case we have missed one precious moment, and then told that this will be the last production of this Amazing piece. The thought of such a travesty is devastating.

  2. The lovemaking scene was unexpected but brilliantly choreographed

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