Last night at the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the second of nine performances of Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (the tales of Hoffmann). There is much to recommend this production, but most important may be the use of the integral edition of the score edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck. The original score went through extensive changes after its first performance in Paris on February 10, 1881. Kaye and Keck fastidiously documented all of those changes, providing any performing ensemble with the opportunity to choose among many alternatives that Offenbach had considered.
Most members of the audience who thought they knew this opera were thus probably surprised to be confronted with the appearance of the Muse immediately after the familiar opening chorus of alcoholic spirits (“Glou! Glou! Glou!”). One expects the transformation of Nicklausse into the Muse during the Epilogue, but this production began with the transformation of the Muse into Nicklausse. This did more than simply provide an overall sense of symmetry. It allowed Director Laurent Pelly to frame the three central “tales” of the libretto into a broader “tale of the storyteller.”
Rather than beginning with Lindorf’s scheming to undermine Hoffmann’s latest romantic pursuit, the soprano Stella, Pelly (through extensive work with dramaturge Agathe Mélinand) presents us with Hoffmann himself as a burned-out, alcoholic, and (presumably) unsuccessful poet, who has endured three unhappy romantic affairs. Touched by the Muse, he becomes a skillful and imaginative storyteller, drawing upon those in his “immediate present” (Nicklausse, Lindorf, Stella’s manservant Andrès, and his besotted imagination of Stella herself) to create rich population of characters for each of his tales. In other words the opera is not about a man disappointed in love three times, who, after yet another disappointment, finds redemption in the storyteller’s art. Instead, it is about how an inferior poet finds his true art as a superior storyteller.
Needless to say, Pelly’s production is far more than an analytic discourse of the power of narratology. Each of the five acts (the Prologue, the three “tales,” and the Epilogue) is conceived with imaginative action and elegant design. However, primary to the unfolding of each act is the fundamental act of fabricating stories, which is abetted most imaginatively by a highly flexible and mobile set designed by Chantal Thomas that reflects the fluidity of the mind making up stories within a flow of spontaneity.
The opera, of course, still rises and falls on its musical values. Thus, much needs to be said about Conductor Patrick Fournillier’s sense of pace, without which this version, which provides far more details than one usually encounters in this work, could easily devolve into tedium. At three and one-half hours, this is a narrative bordering on Wagnerian scale; and Fournillier was always there advancing the plot through its twists and turns without ever lingering excessively.
This involved not only the orchestra but also strong ties to the major vocalists, particularly Matthew Polenzani’s Hoffmann, Angela Brower’s muse, Christian Van Horn’s Lindorf (and his alter egos in each of the tales), and the objects of Hoffmann’s affection (in order of appearance), Olympia (Hye Jung Lee), Antonia (Natalie Dessay), Giulietta (Irene Roberts), and, finally, Stella herself (Jacqueline Piccolino). One also has to make note of the musically minimal, but always theatrically effective, appearances of Andrès (Steven Cole) in each of the three tales. Indeed, the only weakness was an awkward entry by the Chorus at the beginning of the first tale, which Fournillier quickly shepherded back into alignment with the Orchestra.
Most important was that this was an evening in which artifice was the subject, rather than the object, of the conceived production. This was most evident by having the mechanical doll Olympia glide and prance to great heights, all while warbling out her virtuoso coloratura passages. The impression bordered on the supernatural, leaving many to wonder what mechanical devices were required to create the impression. Recognizing that this would be on everyone’s mind, Pelly boldly revealed the device itself (a complex movie camera boom requiring three operators) during the second verse of Olympia’s song (thus deftly solving the problem of making the second verse different from the first). Rather than waiting for Toto to pull away the curtain, Pelly took the initiative himself.
This new production for SFO brilliantly demonstrates that efforts of intense and thoughtful scholarship can still arrive at a theatrically stunning evening.