Beautiful voices, superb acting, and a magical set, lighting, and costumes make Les Contes D’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) a pleasure to see and hear.
Composed by a German who moved to France and changed his name to Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880), The Tales of Hoffmann is called an “opera fantastique,” and many fantastic things do happen. The title character is based on a well-known poet and storyteller, E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822).
During the overture we see, in front of a late 19th century oleo curtain, a pile of cardboard center stage. A passing maid uncovers a drunken man under the debris.
In the prologue, the oleo curtain rises and we see Ezio Freigerio’s backdrop for all 4 scenes in the opera: a beautiful abstraction of a Victorian train station, complete with the entrance of a smoke-puffing locomotive. Its parts light up, wheels turn to highlight an emotional moment in the action, and other delightful mechanical objects come to life. The set is wonderfully enhanced by lighting design from Jason Brown.
The drunken man, the poet/storyteller Hoffmann, staggers into a tavern in Nuremberg, Germany next to the opera house. Hoffmann is sensitively performed by Matthew Polenzani, who has sung several times at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (most recently as Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio) and who is making his debut in this role.
Hoffmann is accompanied by the Muse of Poetry, disguised as Hoffman’s friend Nicklausse, who appears in every scene, giving Hoffmann wise advice, which he ignores. Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons is a good actress and has a clear, strong voice that she uses effectively, sometimes in a comic way, sarcastically commenting on Hoffmann’s folly.
The men’s chorus enters, demanding beer. It’s a large chorus and delivers a powerful sound. Unfortunately, the set does not provide places for the chorus to be on different levels to create more interesting stage pictures, so throughout the opera, the chorus often stands in groups as though in a vocal concert.
Hoffmann is asked for a song and tells a funny story while seated in a cart that is spun around while he spins his story. Polenzani displays his lyrical tenor voice, full of color, in a melancholy verse about his past loves. The rest of the opera is the story of his three tragic love affairs, which illustrate three aspects of love: infatuation, carnal love, and deep and abiding love.
Act I, set in Paris, is the amusing tale of Hoffmann’s love for Olympia. Unfortunately, Olympia is a mechanical doll, created by the scientist Spalanzi and Coppélius. (The storyline here is similar to that in the ballet Coppelia.) Anna Christy is a hilarious Olympia, employing exquisite comic timing as well as pearlescent singing in her portrayal. She enters by gliding across the stage in a mysterious way and goes on to exercise her own will, to the consternation of her creators. She runs out of steam in the middle of an aria and needs a shot of something from a hose to give her more energy.
The success of this one-way love match is thwarted by villain Coppélius, sung by bass-baritone James Morris, who plays all the villains in the opera, changing character in each scene. His rich, powerful sound is a good contrast with Polanzani’s tenor.
To balance the recurring villains are the recurring humorous servants, all played by Rodell Rosel, who creates four distinct and distinctly funny characters. He and Olympia are a fine comic match.
Hoffmann’s affair abruptly ends when Olympia falls apart. Literally.
In a change of mood, Act II is set in Munich, where Hoffmann’s love, Antonia, has been brought by her father, to protect her. Hoffmann has rekindled Antonia’s love of music. Unfortunately, if Antonia sings, she dies. You can imagine the rest, especially with James Morris’s evil Dr. Miracle speeding things along. Erin Wall gives a dramatic and sensitive performance as the lovely Antonia.
In some productions, just as the villains and servants are played by one singer, the three female leads are sung by the same soprano. The only women who have been done so are Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. Polanzani, on the other hand, is almost always on stage, even during scene changes, and displays considerable physical and vocal stamina.
Some productions switch Act II and Act III. Since each scene is independent of the others, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Act III takes us to the Grand Canal in Venice, to Giulietta’s palace. The stage is washed in blue light and low-lying fog, men carry candelabras through the dim light, and finally gondolas slide past. Hoffmann proclaims his love for the courtesan Giulietta, beautifully sung and acted by the aristocratic Alyson Cambridge. Unfortunately, Giulietta is tempted by the evil Dapertutto’s famous Diamond Aria, in which he offers a huge diamond ring in exchange for Giulietta’s help with stealing Hoffman’s soul. It’s a tour de force for James Morris. Another sad end for Hoffmann.
The Epilogue takes us back to the tavern. Ever hopeful, Hoffmann makes a play for Stella, a leading lady from the opera house next door, but she rejects him. Hoffmann has a final burst of madness in his frustration, which Polanzani executes with great passion.
It’s a pleasure to see Polanzani on the Lyric Opera stage. I remember him on the stage at New Trier High School, where he was a student, singing a short operatic excerpt as Tamino in The Magic Flute. His talent was obvious.
Approximate running rime: 3 hours, 26 minutes
In French with projected English translations.
The Tales of Hoffmann runs through October 29, 2011.
Theatre entrance at the corner of Madison and Wacker.
20 N Wacker Dr
Chicago, IL 60606
312.332.2244 ext 5600
Box Office Hours:
Monday - Friday, 9am - 5pm or curtain on performance evenings
Saturday, 10am - 5pm or curtain on performance evenings
Sunday, closed unless there is a matinee; if matinee: 10am - matinee curtain
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