Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann

Léon Spilliaert, Self-Portrait in Mirror, 1908
On the face of it, Jacques Offenbach was the least likely composer to create the opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffman, 1881). Offenbach wrote dozens of lightly comic operettas that satirized contemporary French political and social life, including Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld, 1858), La belle Hélène (The beautiful Helen, 1864) and La Vie Parisienne (Parisian life, 1866). E.T.A. Hoffmann was the author of dark Gothic stories featuring possession, automata, vampires, doubles, and other elements of the uncanny. Most famously, Hoffmann wrote "Nußknacker und Mausekönig" (Nutcracker and Mouse King), later the basis of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker; the story is much darker and eerier than the ballet.

Despite the apparent clash of sensibilities, Offenbach had apparently nurtured an interest in Hoffmann's tales ever since seeing the play Les Contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann (1851) by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. More than two decades later, Offenbach began composing a serious opera based on the play.

Léon Spilliaert, Night, 1908
But the 1870s were difficult years for Offenbach: he was dogged by financial troubles and failing health. By the end of the decade he had completed most of the vocal score for Hoffmann, but changes required for the staging of the work at the Opéra-Comique—primarily tailoring the vocal parts to its resident company of singers—caused further delay. Offenbach died several months before the opera's premiere and while the score was still unfinished. Offenbach's family hired Ernest Guiraud to complete the orchestration and recitatives (at the Opéra-Comique spoken dialogue was employed). At the behest of Léon Carvalho, the impresario of the Opéra-Comique, Guiraud also made extensive cuts to the score (including an entire act).

As a result, the opera has never had a fixed form, but rather multiple versions. Producers and directors assembled the available materials (some by Offenbach and some by Guiraud and other composers) as they chose. Recently Jean-Christophe Keck and Michael Kaye have produced what they term an "integral edition" that attempts to restore as much of Offenbach's original vision (and music) for the work as possible. Crucially, it includes the Muse's appearance at the beginning of the Prologue and her transformation into Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse, which was omitted from Guiraud's version of the opera. It is Keck and Kaye's edition that was the basis for the striking production by director Laurent Pelly which we saw last week at the San Francisco Opera.

Léon Spilliaert, Vertigo, Magic Staircase (1908)
The opera includes Hoffmann himself as a character and incorporates elements from four of his tales: "Don Juan," "The Sandman," "Councillor Krespel," and "The Lost Reflection." The framing prologue and epilogue take place at a tavern adjacent to the theater where Stella, the object of Hoffmann's unrequited love, is performing the role of Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni. While waiting for the performance to be over, a drunken and despairing Hoffmann regales the bar with the stories of three of his loves. First there is Olympia, who seems like a vision of beauty to Hoffmann, but who turns out to be a mechanical singing doll, and who is ultimately destroyed by the mad scientist Coppélius. Then there is Antonia, a tragically ill woman for whom singing may prove fatal, and who falls under the spell of the sinister Dr. Miracle. Finally, there is the temptress Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan who conspires with Hoffmann's enemy, the evil sorcerer Dapertutto, to steal Hoffmann's soul. As Hoffmann finishes his stories, Stella enters the tavern, sees the miserable and abject Hoffmann, and leaves with his nemesis, the villainous Councillor Lindorf. The anguished Hoffmann is left alone with his Muse as the curtain falls.

Pelly's production is inspired by the art of Léon Spilliaert, a Belgian artist who was born the year of Hoffmann's premiere. Spilliaert's paintings feature eerie landscapes and interiors, sometimes empty and sometimes containing solitary, isolated figures. The connection to the Gothic world of E.T.A. Hoffmann is generally one of mood, rather than specific imagery. Pelly, set designer Chantal Thomas, and lighting designer Joël Adam created some striking stage images involving skewed perspective. But if the virtually monochromatic dark blue sets and stark, angled lighting effectively created an oppressive atmosphere, they became visually monotonous after a time; the billowing green curtains that appear in the Giulietta act were a relief. And there was at least one miscalculation: when the spirit of Antonia's dead mother appears, it is as a skull-like projection that visually echoes some of Spilliaert's self-portraits. But Antonia is supposed to be inexorably drawn to her mother's memory; it's hard to imagine anyone being drawn to this nightmarish image.

The music of Hoffmann covers an extremely wide range of moods, from comic songs and drinking choruses to dark, brooding music reminiscent of Wagner. And it contains one of the most beautiful duets in opera, the famous Barcarolle that opens the Giulietta act (the video below was taken from Pelly's staging of this production at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, six months ago):


San Francisco's cast was exceptional. Matthew Polenzani brought a lyrical tenor and an ardent characterization to his portrayal of Hoffmann. As the four villains, Christian Van Horn's dark voice and tall, slender figure (he towered over Polenzani's Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay's Antonia) made him especially sinister. Angela Brower sang appealingly in the double role of the Muse and Nicklausse. And two of Hoffman's four love objects deserve special mention. As the dying Antonia, Natalie Dessay gave an affecting and movingly sung performance. And Hye Jung Lee deftly handled both Olympia's stratospheric coloratura and strenuous comedy (at one point Pelly has her sailing high in the air on a crane, and at another roller-skating in and around crowds of people onstage, all the while tossing off high notes left and right).


Hoffman has been recorded many times, but perhaps the first choice remains the 1948 recording featuring the stars, chorus and orchestra of the Opéra-Comique conducted by André Cluytens. It's in mono sound, and uses a "bad" performing edition that includes Guiraud's recitatives, the interpolated "Diamond Aria" and Barcarolle septet, and mis-ordered acts (the Giulietta act comes second, rather than third as Offenbach intended and narrative logic demands). But with performances this good, it doesn't matter. On video, the version staged by film director John Schlesinger at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in the early 1980s featuring Plácido Domingo as Hoffmann, Luciana Serra as Olympia, Ileana Cotrubas as a powerfully affecting Antonia, and Agnes Baltsa as Giulietta, remains a favorite.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann will be performed at the San Francisco Opera through July 6.



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