This is one hell of a show, in every demonic sense of the word. It may give you nightmares—“cauchemars,” as the libretto puts it—but it will also put you slap in the middle of German fantasist ETA Hoffmann’s fevered imagination.
His eerie, early-19th century tales have stirred creative juices in countless artists, among them Poe and Hawthorne, Dostoevsky and Kafka. Now it’s the turn of conductor Stephen Lord and stage director Christopher Alden to add their twist to Hoffmann’s grotesqueries as the SFO presents, for the first time, Offenbach’s engaging score.
Both Lord and Alden are old hands with this one. Lord, music director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, presented it there in 2008; Alden’s 2003 production for the San Francisco Opera made a splash. Their current collaboration originates with Hoffmann’s obsessive infatuation with the stage. Lord’s contribution is one of grand theatrical gesture, massive climaxes for his huge cast, spine-tingling attention to detail.
Alden, faithful to Jules Barbier’s libretto, sets the action in a cavernous German beer hall where Hoffmann recites the stories of his three loves—each tale partially enacted on a stage-within-a-stage. The result? A unified and coherent presentation of an opera that can collapse into a heap of doomed amorous adventures.
Not that coherence is the first thing that leaps to the viewer’s mind. The multi-layered production becomes more phantasmagorical as the evening advances. Still, the action keeps its focus on the triple relationships among Hoffmann, his nemesis, Lindorf and the super-diva, Stella, in her three staged personas: the lyrical automaton Olympia, the invalid singer Antonia and the manipulative courtesan Giulietta.
The show doesn’t lack for ingenious insights into character nor startling coups de théâtre. Coppelius’ magic spectacles really work; the dead Antonia becomes the live, rapturously received prima donna; Hoffmann’s dreams vanish into nothingness in the opera’s final, infernal apotheosis.
Paul Groves sings his first Hoffmann here, a booze-sodden, self-deluding, manic-depressive anti-hero—with a glorious voice, as it happens. His warm, beautifully produced tenor is equally comfortable with frenetic drinking songs and coaxing love lyrics. Erin Wall assumes all four soprano roles, as Offenbach intended. She is moving, totally successful in the lyrical-dramatic role of Antonia, her Olympia is a self-conscious burlesque, and the demands of Giulietta’s aria tax her voice.
Wayne Tigges had covered the roles of the four villains during rehearsal but, when the scheduled singer left the show, he had four days to master the stage business. He did so opening night with diabolical aplomb, a keen sense of character and a lyrical, well-placed voice.
Special accolades go to Kate Lindsey, the young, hugely gifted mezzo-soprano who sang the dual role of Nicklausse/the Muse. She’s a gifted actress in a tricky concept of the part; her burnished, golden-toned voice and fine stage presence captured every heart. David Cangelosi as the four comic servants, Mark Schowalter as Spalanzani and Jill Groves as Antonia’s mother all made powerful contributions.
This Hoffmann ranks as one of the SFO’s most ambitious productions ever. Susanne Sheston prepared the demanding passages for large chorus. Allen Moyer’s flexible set, Constance Hoffman’s eye-pleasing costumes, Pat Collins’ ingenious lighting and Seán Curran’s stage movements kept the spectacular action on the move.
An analogy surfaced just as I left the theater. This is the Offenbach of La Belle Hélčne? Of course not. SFO’s sinister, glittering new show has more in common with Dr. Caligari’s wunderkammer, Frank Wedekind and German expressionism. Should we be surprised? Hardly. Welcome to that prickly blutbruderschaft, Herr Hoffmann.