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Totem/Tales of Hoffmann

In the last week-or-so, I've seen two stage productions which involved a human in a full-body ape costume. With that strong - if entirely unexpected - commonality, I'm putting them both into one post.

Totem

The last Cirque du Soleil performance I saw was in Toronto, years ago. It wasn't as magical as the previous ones had been to be - the struts of the tent were a distraction, too much of it reminded me of the previous years' performance; so it's just as well I had several years' gap before seeing another. Toronto is the second city where new Cirque shows stop, right after their home town of Montreal. My gap was also due to the long backlog of performances cycling through London which I'd already seen.

Totem was in the Royal Albert Hall, where Cirque's in-the-round performance isn't interrupted by tent struts. As we settled into our seats in the half-light of the pre-performance, the main stage was covered by an inflated, mottled dome, like the back of a turtle. Up on the main stage, obscuring the musicians, tall bamboo-like reeds were pulled aside and crept through by performers.

I had a wholly unexpected moment of nostalgia at the opening words: "Mesdames et messieurs, bienvenue au Cirque du Soleil!" An early leap missed his target so it took a little while to settle into the show, but soon it was immersive. It was a delight. It was magical. Only one of the clowns was sorta annoying, one misidentified by my neighbors as Italian. No, no. A stereotypical Italian wouldn't be caught dead in a bright Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and fanny pack; this was clearly an Italian-American.

Some of the acts were memorably spectacular. In one, five women on extremely tall unicycles tossed copper bowls, using their feet and calves, on to their own heads and each others' in synchronized formation and while cycling round each other. In another, a couple on roller skates and an extremely small round stage, circled round each other so quickly that the centripetal motion sustained their balance while she did acrobatics on him, tossed around and balanced in a tight spiral of precarious motion.

One trapeze act was very sweetly plotted and acted. A young woman is tricked into approaching a swing on which a young man is napping. He grabs on to her just as the swing rises high up into the air. The series of interactions which followed were a lovely study in young girl and young boy jostling for preferred seat on the swing, albeit with spectacular feats along the way; but the feats were subsumed into the acting and eventually, worn out, they fall asleep on each others' shoulders. (I liked it too for being a rare male/female act without a blatantly romantic dynamic.)

As for the ape costume: there were really multiple people in ape costumes in Totem. They were partly mischievious, but also used in an ape-to-man-with-business-suit-and-mobile evolution sequence of seven people following each other around the stage.

Tales of Hoffmann

I've had Offenbach's "Barcarolle" stuck in my head for days, which is, as earworms go, a real pleasure.

The ENO's new production of Tales of Hoffmann (a staging only previously seen at the Bayerische Staatopera, apparently), was, on the whole, good in a ridiculous way. The opera isn't really that strong on plot, although lots of things happen. Hoffmann tells his friends stories at the pub of failed encounters with the women he has loved in the past in which they ended up dead - thanks to the intervention of his nemesis - while his Muse tries to ensure that he ends up writing stories more than pining for loves.

This production opens on Hoffmann scribbling away in his one-room apartment, tearing out pages and throwing them away. The overture kicks in after several silent minutes, and then the opening song, in praise of wine and beer and the friendship and inspiration they provide for mankind. Hoffmann goes to his wine cabinet, opens the doors - and out pops his muse, bottle in hand.

It's the start of a whole series of people-popping-out-of-furniture, from the person who zanily climbs out of the back of an upright piano and into the pub scene which immediately follows, or to more subtle moments. At one point in Antonia's story, the girl is left alone. She sits down at the piano with a large book of sheet music and starts paging through it. After several pages, she turns to the head of the doctor/magician who is the cause of her ill health. He is literally haunting her music, singing to her from the page (while, in fact, standing inside the piano in front of her, revealed by a cut-out in the music).

The singer playing the love interests was easily the strongest of the cast. Her version of Olympia's song was particularly spectacular, between the staging and her voice. (The Muse was also quite good, as was the chorus. The rest of the cast were perfectly fine, but not as striking.) We are introduced to Olympia, a doll who is brought to life, while she is very clearly a life-sized doll. She is interchangeably singer and the physical doll up until she appears on a miniature stage for the party held in her honor. Then, her top half is singer, and her legs, dangling over the mini-stage's edge, are the articulated doll's. The song - as it is meant to - periodically breaks down as the doll doesn't quite work as expected. The staging meant that at one point her torso could be facing the wrong way from her legs. And reverting to the physical doll at the end of the act allows the barometer merchant to rip her limb from limb, tossing them to the party attendees.

The "Barcarolle" begins the third act, the story of Giulietta, a courtesan for whom Hoffmann fell. The dreamy duet between courtesan and Muse is often done in a dreamy setting, the better to enjoy the music; since the scene is set in Venice in the play, a gondola is often involved. This production skips any Venetian references in favor of more pro-active storytelling; good for having a better sense of the evilness of the magician, poor for being able to revel in the music. Instead, the courtesan invites man after man into her room, where he is forced to look into a mirror which steals his face, revolving him out again covered in shiny goo, and the flattened face stuck to an oversized mirror, ready for peeling off and adding to the magician's collection.

I was struck by how many multi-voice pieces in this opera are, at least in this production, sung by people who can't see each other. Walls regularly divide them from each other, so they are dependent on the conductor and the music for coordination. I'd also forgotten just how much good music there is in Hoffmann.

One novelty of this production, for me, was how much my local patch of audience interacted in between acts. The women who commented to me, as they passed by, that it was all too vague and dreamy for them. The passing man who effused at me how good the production was. The couple, there for a 68th birthday celebration, with whom I got on so well and who live to near to me that we exchanged phone numbers. The grumpy gentleman I started off beside, who told off the really tall guy in front of me, around whose moving head I kept leaning in order to see; toward the end of the first intermission, a substantially taller man sat down in front of him, at which point he gave up and switched rows to an empty seat. I ended up with a better view too as a result of all the switching.

As for the ape suit? I don't even know. That really was surreal. There was someone dressed as a gorilla crawling around the stage for the whole of Giulietta's story.

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