“Les Contes d’Hoffman”, a relatively new production at SF Opera of Offenbach’s glorious trilogy of thwarted yet poetic love, should get an award for the three ring circus of dark macabre sets and effects alone. A 19th century drunken European poet’s dreams of the women he loses tragically one after the other spins along with a cast full of charisma, stamina and projection of personality from poignant to sinister to wacky.
The three and a half hour production by Laurent Pelly and conducted by his colleague Patrick Fournillier, sung in French, brings out the exuberance and mischief of lead Matthew Polenzani, who when he appeared in his Mozart role in 2009 as the stiff yet loyal fiance’ Belmonte in “Abduction from the Seraglio”, was informed by his leading lady Mary Dunleavy that his character needed to loosen up and give a lady a little “somethin somethin”.
Young Polenzani’s gift for physical humor and comaraderie shows particularly in his Hoffman’s comedic drinking song, “Kleinzack”. Yet he gets no mercy for all his entertaining exertions. Yet, this opera gets credit for being non-bourgeois, focusing as Mozart does on more common folk if not the underworld, the world of the Faustian night and the dark side of love.
Related: How opera takes on the bourgeoisie with “Tales of Hoffman”
Related: “Abduction from the Seraglio” about learning mercy
Lighting, sets, costumes steal the show
The choristers of San Francisco Opera were in fine form especially in the opening scene with nightmare lighting by Joel Adam. The choristers come out from the shadows looking as if they stepped out of a dusty old sepia toned painting, wearing dapper top hats. Laurent Pelly directed costume design and Chantal Thomas created the intricate moving sets.
Lighting designer Joel Adam also did an hysterical job during the mechanical doll sequence, where Hoffman fails to see the revealed mechanical nature of the object of his desire even in bright light. Lighting magic creates major moments and impact in this production. This production does have a cartoonish tone sometimes which is funny but at the same time a bit jolting and out of context, out of a different time—the projection at one point seems to be out of a 1950s Hitchcock thriller. It’s a playful production.
Natalie Dessay and the nature of fame
However. French soprano Natalie Dessay only played one of the love interests, the girl Antonia who inherited not only her deceased mother’s singing talent and need for fame and adoration but the mother’s other curse, a fatal disease which meant death if she strained herself by singing. The girl falls in love with Hoffman and cannot resist singing for him though facing a lifetime of safety as a housewife.
Dessay showed tenderness, innocence and poignancy and none of the raunchy good French fun she is capable of as another of the love interests, the mechanical doll Olympia. Instead, the audience finds her as a docile and fragile girl with a long braid, running to her father’s arms. James Creswell made a gentle and vulnerable father, Crespel his debut at San Francisco Opera. It’s a Verdian father/daughter sequence.
Petite Dessay, singing in her native language, physically looked the part of a girl and her voice was believable as such. Dessay in her maturity should get credit for good judgment in picking the role that says something about the nature of fame. David Gockley even justified the Anna Nicole opera years ago by saying a study of the nature of fame is a worthwhile subject.
Related: Natalie’s CD of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” and Ladies, Do We Still Want the Fairy Tale?
Dessay and Florez Awaken Love in “La Sonnambula”
It’s a disappointment that the same soprano doesn’t sing each of the love interests so the singers’ stamina never gets tested as the male leads’ does and the audience gets cheated out of the range of acting. However, the character of the mechanical doll Olympia elevated and thrilled the house, performed anything but mechanically by a former Merolini, tiny and doll-like Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee.
The tiny soprano showed huge personality and confidence, adding to the comedic effect of a mechanical doll going awry and amok and yet the poet Hoffman still sees her through rose colored glasses, blinded by her beauty as to her true nature as nothing more than an animated mannequin or automaton.
Casting an Asian in this role did nothing to alleviate the popular male stereotype of Asian women as little more than sexual dolls, one dimensional, petite and girlish. What would have been really funny and outside the box would be casting a Wagnerian in the role, a hefty Deborah Voight. Yet as one character exclaims about the mechanical doll in Hoffman sung by Hye Jung Lee, what Heavenly trills.
Perhaps a Dolora Zajick in the role. After all, the mad professor who invented Olympia and perpetuates the fraud looks like something out of Young Frankenstein with his electrified white clown hair and crazy laugh. Spalanzani is Thomas Glenn, who seemed to relish the eccentric role as he dashed about his laboratory and added brilliantly to the mayhem.
Here is Dessay singing the doll song. It’s worth it to watch to the end.
The bass baritone
Perhaps the most delicious roles were the unsavory characters each portrayed by the tall and dark baritone Christian Van Horn. Each diabolical foil seems like the quintessential bass baritone, the lurking nemesis thwarting efforts of the poet and his impotent overtures. Hoffman gets the sinister and menacing treatment by an imposing Van Horn, head and shoulders above the rest of the cast and physically threatening by just standing there.
Here’s a hint but not quite a plot spoiler: Greer Grimsley fans should be thrilled with how Van Horn handles the big reveal sequence where everybody but the poet blinded by love sees the mechanical doll for what she is. Grimsley, a Christian who played Van Horn’s roles in his early days, appeared in Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”. Grimsley’s dead character John the Baptist lived on as his head rolled about the blood soaked stage in the arms of a crazed and scorned princess.
Related: “Salome” a tribute to artists who defy traditional expectations
Although the singing sounded uniformly beautiful, often lyrical with glorious high notes, the money song fell flat. The Venetian courtesan Giuletta, sung by Irene Roberts in her San Francisco Opera debut, seems to be singing backup as she simply reclines on the loveseat while the choristers pair off in male/female couples getting down to various degrees of horizontal.
Perhaps the intent behind this version of the Barcarole was comedic, to play it darker and macabre rather than seductive, to sap the spirit out of it and slow it down to make it more of an underworld nightmare. Yet it’s like messing with “Nessun Dorma” and the audience waits a long time for it with anticipation. It does however emphasize Giuletta’s passivity and lack of passion for anything but jewelry.
That said the story does nothing to change the old stereotypes of women. Also intact and perpetuated, the stereotype of the French as namby pamby when it comes to fighting and easily overtaken because of the obsession with beauty over substance to the point of self-destruction. Yet this farce remains charming and self-effacing and the new production is well worth seeing.
Three more performances:
June 30 (2 p.m.), July 3 (7:30 p.m.) and July 6 (8 p.m.), 2013
Tickets range from $22 to $340 with standing room and student rush $10
For more information: www.SFOpera.com
For more stories by this writer check out CBS San Francisco’s website under Eye on the Bay, San Francisco arts & culture “Best Of”; and San Francisco Arts & Culture on usedview.com. Subscribe by hittng the SUBSCRIBE button at the top of this article.
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