Washington Opera:  Tales of Hoffman

Saturday, September 08, 2001

Nicklausse/the Muse of Poetry:
Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle:
The Voice of Antonia’s Mother:

Production, Concept, Direction:
Denyce Graves
Richard Leech
Alan Held
Robert Baker
James Shaffran
William Parcher
Corey Evan Rotz
Sumi Jo
Victoria Livengood
Stefan Szkafarowsky
Elena Mastina
Kyle Engler

Emmanuel Villaume
Marta Domingo
(Placido’s wife)

Washington Opera did a tremendously wonderful job with Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann this evening. This opera is based on some of the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a late-8th/early-19th Century German poet and storyteller with a penchant for the grotesque and macabre. This opera should more properly be called “Lost Loves of Hoffmann”, as in each Act, Hoffmann is re-enacting a story of a love won (or so he thinks) and lost.

In the first Act, Hoffmann has fallen in love with a clockwork doll. The irony in the story is that the other characters seem aware that the object of Hoffmann’s love is a doll (Olympia, a “living doll”) which comes alive along with other dolls, who dance in even tempo in time with moving clock hands along the wall. I could hear giggling among the audience members – yes its okay to giggle during the performance here. I think Offenbach (or his librettist?) would have approved for this act is definitely a spoof on the folly of blind love at first sight. On a side note: That phrase we often hear from friends and family after we do something very nice for them – “you are a ‘living doll’!” – will never seem the same again after having seen this opera. The set design for this scene was interesting and effective as there were moving clock arms and grotesque images of dwarfs and gnomes with movable arms and legs. A large moving pair of eyes was over the door in the back of the stage. It kept opening and closing and flashing beams of light over the characters. Two giant dolls reminiscent of the huge almost life-like toy soldiers in Tchaikowski’s “Nutcracker Suite” graced each side of that doorway. (Yes, one of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories relates the adventures of a Mouse King, which appears in the “Nutcracker Suite.” I think the director wanted us to see the connection, that one of Tchaikowski’s most beloved ballets was inspired by Hoffmann, too.) The mood was surrealistic and eerie. Of course that music was wonderful, beautifully performed by the orchestra and magnificently sung with perfect control and dynamics by the performers on the stage.

The set design for the second Act looked like the abode of a Persian courtesan. Mediterranean shapes covered the walls at side and rear of the stage. Thinly veiled women in long flowing robes were reclining on richly jewelled ottomans scattered around the stage. The famous “Barcarole” music could be heard coming from the orchestra. This is the music by which most of us who have taken music lessons as children are first introduced to The Tales of Hoffmann. Early on many of us fall passionately in love with the “Barcarole” melody and can play it on our pianos or clarinets long before we learn the story it was written to accompany. The “Barcarole” played by a full orchestra is a beautiful and enchanting melody of love and the theme from this melody continues to play throughout the second Act. The second Act relates Hoffmann’s failures to snare the love of a courtesan. She tricks him into selling his reflection so that he can no longer see himself in a mirror. By the time he finds out that he has lost his valued gems and his reflection, the courtesan has disappeared. Victoria Livengood has a good voice and was perfect for the role of Giuletta. She was dressed like a temptress in a long purple robe and lay on the stage in seductive poses. There was no giggling in this act as there was in the first Act. The theme and mood here were too serious for mockery and probably hit home for many in the audience. At the end of this act, everyone in the audience started feeling sorry for poor Hoffmann. Mockery turned to sympathy.

By Act III, one really does have reason to feel sorry for poor Hoffmann. Sympathy turns to despair and sorrow. Hoffmann is in love with Antonia, a young woman who is a gifted singer and who has inherited the voice of her famous (and deceased) mother. Antonia suffers from a strange illness and is told by a Dr. Miracle that she will die if she sings. Also, Hoffmann tells her that if she marries him she will have to give up her singing career to become a housewife. Because she believes she loves Hoffmann, she agrees. However, she must struggle with the sound of her mother’s voice which descends from heaven commanding her to sing once again. Antonia’s dead mother’s will is stronger than her own and she begins to sing. On doing so, she falls to the ground and dies. The setting is in a darkened basement and the stage was dimly lit with a staircase in the rear which seemed to come out of nowhere. The only other prop was a woman draped in long white robes and pretending to be a statue of Antonia’s mother. When it “spoke,” it moved and seemed to come alive. The “voice,” from someone off-stage, was eerie and there was macabre sounding music throughout this act. It was very well done musically and dramatically. The Muse tells Hoffman that through sorrow (such as he experiences in the third Act) he will become a better poet. We come away from this opera agreeing with her.

The most impressive performer on the stage, however, was not Richard Leech as Hoffmann, the main character. He acted and sang well, and was convincing. He has a strong voice and was able to carry the emotion of the music with little effort. However, the star of the show was the Muse of Poetry, who accompanies Hoffmann on his lovelorn adventures disguised as Nicklausse. This was sung by Denyce Graves, a wonderfully talented mezzo who tonight, sounded more like a dramatic soprano and hit registers I did not know she was capable of. I have heard her sing in Washington Opera’s Samson and Dalilah and Don Quichotte. Loved her both times. But this evening in Hoffmann she reached new heights in her singing. I look forward to hearing her sing again in the future, hopefully in even more demanding roles, such as Wagner.

After seeing this production on stage, I am tempted to rush out and buy some of E.T.A. Hoffmann's books.

by Jan Rosen

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