SFO's marvelous 'Tales'
by Jason Victor Serinus
If you think you know Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d'Hoffmann), the opera with the beautiful "Barcarolle" and ridiculously stratospheric "Doll Song," you're in for a big surprise from San Francisco Opera. Director and costumer Laurent Pelly's absolutely delightful, mind-boggling production, which runs for seven more performances in the War Memorial Opera House, has so many new twists and turns that even hardcore aficionados will be scratching their heads over all the changes.
Truth be told, the Hoffmann we're accustomed to seeing is a bastardized version that differs greatly from what the composer expected. When Offenbach died, four months before the opera's 1881 premiere at L'Opera-Comique, discussions of changes to the score were still underway. By the time the opera reached the stage, the act with Giulietta, one of starry-eyed poet Hoffmann's four impossible loves, had already been expunged. Further cuts, re-ordering of material, and the addition of music not in the original score continued until the discovery, in the 1970s, of most of the original autograph piano-vocal score and other material led to further wholesale revision.
Even the production, a collaboration between Pelly and dramaturg Agathe Melinand that is based on the carefully prepared integral edition of the opera edited by Jean-Christophe Keck and Michael Kaye, has undergone changes since Pelly and Melinand worked together on a different Hoffmann production in 2003. The dialogue is entirely new, the Giulietta act has been filled out, and the epilogue is one big surprise.
But then again, so is the entire production. What initially seems like a low-budget set of moving platforms soon opens, rises, and revolves to reveal far more inventive action, shtick, and joyful comedy than we've come to expect from Offenbach's "serious" grand opera. The scene with the mechanical doll Olympia (played by very, very high, idiosyncratically voiced soprano Hye Jung Lee) has so many delights, both visually and musically – including two interpolated high Fs – that it left the opening-night audience cheering. And the comedy of the lovable Steven Cole, who plays four characters including the ridiculous Cochenille, is such a joy that we are assured that, in composing Hoffmann, Offenbach had not exactly turned his back on his frothy past.
Vocally and dramatically, SFO has scored with two of the opera's leads, tenor Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann) and towering bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (the four aspects of the Devil). Polenzani is far more animated than usual, and sings with peerless beauty of tone and convincing ardor. His major tour de force – he is the major presence in every act – falters only towards the end, when his great romantic outpouring "O Dieux! De quelle ivresse" ("O God! With what rapture") is sung too fast, virtually devoid of nuance and rubato.
Van Horn, whose excellence in his previous outings for SFO has screamed "major role," delivers on his promise. His bright, handsome, extremely resonant voice cuts through the house, just as his four characters, all aspects of the Devil, strike at the heart of the human spirit.
Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower (Nicklausse/Muse), substituting for Alice Coote, sings with consistent strength and conviction. Alas, her ever-animated, mobile stage presence is more interesting than her homogenized voice.
You may not remember the sound of Brower's instrument, but you'll never forget soprano Natalie Dessay's (Antonia). Her soft singing remains supremely touching and endearing, even if her tone in her strongest outpourings is no longer pristine. The role and production don't give her enough opportunities to display her remarkable theatricality, but her lovely portrayal confirms her star status.
The other major roles were played by Ian Robertson's San Francisco Opera Chorus and our superb opera orchestra. How many ways can you say world-class?
The other two loves in Hoffmann's life, mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (Giulietta), and first year Adler Fellow soprano Jacqueline Piccolino (Stella), both showed promise. Roberts and Brower may have sung the most prosaic, anti-romantic, two voices in separate universes "Barcarolle" I've ever heard, but that may be the fault of conductor Patrick Fournillier, who started out wonderfully, but seemed to lose imagination by Act IV. Truth be told, the production itself scores the most points for inventiveness in the first half.
In smaller roles, tenor Thomas Glenn, a San Francisco favorite, was his usual outstanding self as Spalanzani, and other singers performed quite well. But let's not get lost amongst the stars and asteroids. When you put it all together, this is the most revelatory and engrossing production of Hoffmann imaginable. If you want to spend your evening delighted, amazed, and touched, don't miss SFO's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.