Tales of Hoffmann Review – Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 57th Opening Night

Chicago Splash Magazine journalist Toby Nicholson and I made our way through what seemed like a maze of construction leading to the Civic Opera House and were delighted to have an open door waiting for us to walk through. Entering the lobby where The Tales of Hoffmann Opening Night Gala Benefit was in full swing, we enjoyed the elegance and excitement.  All present were enjoying drinks and delicious, delicate complimentary hors d’oeuvres. (Sweets were offered between act II or III). Outdoors many guests walked along the red carpet to a grand entry into the opera house. This year’s festivities celebrate the extravagant production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.   The elegant attire and the beautiful décor of the lobby created a festive atmosphere. There was heightened energy and it appeared that people were anticipating the first opera and the expectation of a spectacular opera season.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Opening Night Gala Benefit and Opera Ball, a project of the Women’s Board of Lyric Opera of Chicago raised $875,000 – net proceeds.  A capacity audience of 3,500 attended Opening Night Gala Benefit performance of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.

Lyric Opera’s Tales of Hoffmann Review: Opera Fantastique by Toby Nicholson

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 Frigerio’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. Nicklausse and Giulietta sing a beautiful rendition of the Barcarole, a signature melody of the opera, yet not written by Offenbach, who died before the opera was completed.  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 Hoffmann’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.

As we left the Civic Opera House, we observed people boarding the trolleys to deliver them to the Opera Ball at Hilton Chicago’s Grand Ballroom where they enjoyed a seated dinner, and dancing to the Stu Hirsh Orchestra. 625 guests attended, many enjoying themselves from 10 p.m. – 1:30 a.m.

Opening Night Chairman: Trisha Rooney Alden (Kris) of Chicago
Opera Ball Chairman: Ms. Karen Z. Gray of Lake Forest
Women’s Board President: Mrs. J. Christopher Reyes (Anne) of Lake Forest

The Opening Night Gala Benefit was generously sponsored by Aon Corporation.
The Opera Ball was generously cosponsored by ITW and Northern Trust.
The Opera Ball reception was sponsored by Liz Stiffel.
The Grand March was sponsored by Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP.

Lyric Opera presentation of The Tales of Hoffmann generously made possible by the NIB Foundation, the Abbott Fund, and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Décor for Opening Night Gala Benefit and Opera Ball by Heffernan Morgan Designs.
Opening Night Gala Benefit catering by Jewell Events Catering.
Pre-Opera performance Private Reception catering by Calihan Catering, Inc.
Opera Ball music by Stu Hirsh Orchestra.

Approximate running rime: 3 hours, 26 minutes

In French with projected English translations.

The Tales of Hoffmann runs through October 29, 2011.

Be sure to allow time for the free pre-performance lectures that begin one hour prior to curtain time and last 30 minutes.  The insights gained make any opera more enjoyable.

Theatre entrance at the corner of Madison and Wacker.

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

Lyric Opera of Chicago

20 N Wacker Dr

For tickets: http://www.lyricopera.org/tickets/index.aspx 


The Tales of Hoffmann continues:  7:30pm Wed., Oct 5th. Sat., Oct 15th, Tues., Oct 18, Fri., Oct 21, Mon., Oct 24th, Sat., Oct 29th and at 2:00p.m Sun., Oct 9, Wed., Oct 12


Photos: Dan Rest

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