Santa Fe Opera presents Offenbach’s masterpiece, "The Tales of Hoffmann"
Review by David Gregson, Thursday, August 12.
Because there is no truly definitive version of Offenbach’s "The Tales of Hoffmann," I have never seen two live stage productions of the piece that have been exactly alike. For this reason alone, the experience is always fresh and interesting in some way. I thought I knew Michael Kaye’s performing edition already, but apparently not. Santa Fe Opera’s current production draws on the most recent research — an edition by Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck — and during last night’s performance, I felt as I were continually hearing new things for the very first time. And what I heard I liked very much, although I have been informed that I still have things to learn about from this edition: apparently many cuts were made to shorten the evening. Even with these, however, the opera did not get out until midnight.
Because I have been attending opera performances since the late 1950s and have also collected many recordings, I was once used to a fairly standard performing version of "The Tales of Hoffmann." Even back in my salad days, however, directors would subtract, add and rearrange the numbers and shuffle the acts. Today the avid opera consumer is bound to get an "anything goes" feeling at "Hoffmann." One must simply roll with the punches, expect the unexpected and — well, choose your clichė.
Perhaps it is this very uncertainty about what to expect that made stage director Christopher Alden’s production concept possible to swallow despite his penchant for absurdly extraneous bits of wretched writhing-and-rolling, a ubiquitous and incessant sideline shtick that evokes (for this old timer, at least) artist Bill Holman’s Smokey Stover comic strip in which there was something or other perpetually upstaging the action in the main panels. Alden’s main idea, however, is a good one. He calls the opera "a dreamy exploration of the soul of the artist…[that reveals] his ambivalent relationship with his beloved Stella." All the women of the piece become "potent metaphors for the artist’s romance with his art, his inspiration, his drive to create." The multiple villains. of course, are really one, a projection of "the 19th century artist’s fear of the devaluation of the human soul in an age of rapid industrialization." It’s before Freud, but all vey Freudian nonetheless.
So, the concept is sound enough. Unfortunately Alden possesses an almost fatal knack for muddying narrative clarity. A director needs to help us a little in the story telling department, especially when all the action transpires upon a single unit set. At the very least, we need to know where we are and what’s going on. Luther’s Tavern in Nuremberg, the sole setting (a handsome, solid looking construction by Allen Moyer), must also function as Coppėlius’s laboratory, the home of the singer Antonia, as well as a Venetian palace. If Alden did not have his three-ring circus going on, things would have been infinitely clearer. Hoffmann, remember, is in this tavern telling the story of his loves to a mostly rowdy crowd of drunken university students. The villain, Lindorf, is already there; and the diva Stella will arrive after the opera is completed next door. The forces of love and good and evil are shape-shifting characters and must carry Hoffmann’s tales to completion all in one room. All of this works quite well and with a great deal of inventiveness and clever imagination — but, wait! What the heck is going on over there on top of the piano? And why is somebody trying to stuff himself into a picture frame?
No review on earth could catalogue all the stage business in this show. A critic would have to be taking notes and working the Lightning Shorthand Method through the whole opera.
Hoffmann is actually a long and exhausting role, but tenor Paul Groves showed no signs of tiring as the evening wore on. A fine artist with a strong, solid timbre, he perhaps lacks some of the youthful burnished sound he once projected. Nothing seemed to faze him, even singing some of his most beautiful music while holding a ridiculous pair of binoculars to his eyes and always looking the wrong way during the Olympia scene. (Why not just pop on some rose-colored glasses and look in the correct direction? Yes, she’s a doll — an automaton, in fact, and Hoffmann doesn’t see her for what she really is — but, Mr. Alden, why make the simple staging solution so utterly baroque? Just give the guy some rosy spectacles, FCS!)
Soprano Erin Wall played all four heroines, but the coloratura passages of the Olympia part did not show her at her best. She was strongest in the Antonia and Giulietta scenes in which her voice warmed and she was able to express the complex emotional states of her characters. Although he did not eclipse memories of some great singers in his part(s), bass baritone Wayne Tigges performed all the villains with considerable skill, clearly relishing each change of character. But the top pleasure of the evening was hearing fabulous mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey in the now greatly expanded role of the Muse, never a major character until all these newly developed performing editions popped up on the scene. One would like to hear and see more of her, although not necessarily crawling and wiggling around and feeling herself up as if undergoing a sexual demonic possession. She’s a great singer and a natural stage animal and needs no gimmicks to prove it.
All the remaining parts (listed below) were more than capably filled. Stephen Lord’s conducting and the playing of the orchestra was first rate, and given all the extra music in the score, it was also literally revelatory. Although some have said this "Hoffmann" is not a success, I for one enjoyed it much more than not. The directorial annoyances gradually became part of the landscape — and I simply accepted them. I was never bored and often charmed. In short, for me the strengths far outweighed all the irritatingly problematic elements.
Stella/Olympia/ – Erin Wall
Antonia/Giulietta – Erin Wall
Nicklausse – Kate Lindsey
Voice of Antonia’s Mother – Jill Grove
Hoffmann – Paul Groves
Spalanzani – Mark Schowalter
Lindorf/Coppelius/ – Wayne Tigges
Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto – Wayne Tigges
Andres/Cochenille/ – David Cangelosi
Frantz/Pittichinaccio – David Cangelosi
Crespel/Luther – Harold Wilson
Conductor – Stephen Lord
Director – Christopher Alden
Scenic Designer – Allen Moyer
Costume Designer – Constance Hoffman
Lighting Designer – Pat Collins
Performance dates: July 17, 21, 30; August 3, 7, 11, 17, 24, 28
WAYNE TIGGES (DR. MIRACLE)
Photo by Ken Howard
PAUL GROVES (HOFFMANN) & KATE LINDSEY (NICKLAUSSE)
Photo by Ken Howard
ERIN WALL (ANTONIA)
Photo by Ken Howard