‘The Tales of Hoffmann’
By Jacques Offenbach
Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré
Directed by Laurent Pelly
Conducted by Patrick Fournillier
San Francisco Opera
June 5-July 6, 2013
The course of true love never did run smooth and, in the case of Jacques Offenbach’s star-crossed poet Hoffmann, it has more speed bumps than a school zone. Based on three stories by the real-life German Romantic poet and music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann (“The Nutcracker” and many more), it weaves a magical web of thwarted passion, ultimate disillusion and sublimation into artistic creation. Offenbach’s final work (he did not live to see it performed) is considered his masterpiece — in contrast to the frothy operettas that made him the toast of Paris in the mid-19th century.
And rightly so, despite the purists who disdain it as the work of a relatively minor composer. The music is gorgeous and, I must confess, it is my personal favorite in the entire operatic canon. And it is the music that saves this San Francisco production— presented in collaboration with Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, where it premiered, and the Opera National de Lyon. Director Laurent Pelly’s distinctively dark take on the tale makes sense in a philosophical way but is at odds with the buoyancy of the music and the humor that Offenbach— still the operetta composer— inserted at frequent intervals. Taking inspiration from the paintings of the somewhat obscure Belgian artist Leon Spillaert, depicting drab, if mysterious, interiors (sets by Chantal Thomas) and costumes ( designed by the director) that do little to relieve the palette, it is as boring to look at as it is wonderful to hear.
Nevertheless, Pelly’s somber and spooky setting brings several elements to the fore that might be lost in sunnier stagings. The villain, Lindorf, sung by Christian Van Horn with diabolical and positively protean power, seems much more central here, his various incarnations in each of the tales merging into one chilling Mephistophelean nemesis. Pelly’s handling of the humor is innovative as well. Olympia (Hye Jung Lee), the mechanical doll who is the first object of Hoffmann’s adoration, is manipulated around (and above) the stage by a very visible crane and, once she detaches, slides around on roller skates (which can’t be easy to do while delivering those very high trills).
Hoffmann’s other loves are sung by the transcendent Natalie Dessay— who originally signed on to do them all but changed her mind— as the doomed young singer Antonia, Irene Roberts as the heartless Venetian courtesan Giulietta and, briefly, Jacqueline Piccolino as Stella, the opera star who, in Hoffmann’s drink-addled imagination, embodies them all. But the largest female role is assigned to Angela Brower as Hoffmann’s muse who disguises herself as Nicklausse, a student, and accompanies the poet on each of his adventures in an attempt to save him from himself. American singer Brower, a member of the Bavarian State Opera of Munich, was a last-minute substitute for the originally cast and far more famous Alice Coote. Lucky for her and lucky for us. Her stellar performance here may be a major career breakthrough.
And now to the main event: Hoffmann himself, played by handsome American tenor Matthew Polenzani, who is well on his way to making this demanding role his own. The ladies may change but Polenzani is onstage throughout the three hours it takes to tell the “Tales.” Never once did his clarion voice flag and, as far as his acting went, he visibly grew from the innocent romantic of “Olympia” to a mature man in love in “Antonia” to a disillusioned dilettante in “Giulietta” and back to a slobbering drunk in the end. It was a tour de force.
Also of note was Steven Cole, who played the three flunkies, Frantz, Andres and Cochenille, with fine vigor and voice and made the comic routines funnier and less boring than in other productions I’ve seen, and Merola alum James Creswell, in his company debut as Antonia’s father, Crespel. An Act II trio, sung by Creswell, Polenzani and Van Horn, was utterly riveting. Ian Robertson’s chorus sang beautifully— especially the men in the tavern scenes that frame the opera— and conductor Patrick Fournillier generally had the orchestra well in hand, except for one moment during the entrance of the guests in Act I, when the musicians and the chorus fell out of synch.