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Tales of Hoffmann in Baltimore

Tales of Hoffmann, Baltimore Opera, April 30, 2005On Saturday night, April 30, Ionarts attended the opening night of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, presented by the Baltimore Opera at the historic Lyric Opera House. This is one of those operas that are simultaneously rewarding vocally and challenging intellectually. The ingenious idea came from a play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, Les contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann (1851), from which they adapted the libretto used by Offenbach. (They also wrote the libretto for Gounod's Faust.) The authors selected several fantastic stories from the work of E. T. A. Hoffmann (who created the story of The Nutcracker and whose stories were a favorite of Sigmund Freud's for their psychological nature). Adapt three Hoffmann stories of failed love, and weave them into a storyline as tales recounted by Hoffmann on a long, beery night. (Take a look at the Hoffmann Study Guide from the Baltimore Opera for more information.)

Hoffmann is a popular opera, even though it was Offenbach's last opera, left incomplete and rather different from his typical comedies. For decades, the opera was performed in various editions, all of them terrible, resulting from the botched attempts by Léon Carvalho, the director of the Opéra Comique, to complete it. There were even pieces by other composers (such as the aria "Scintille diamant") inserted into the old score, which have become popular with audiences and are still usually performed. Michael Kaye discovered a number of pages of Offenbach's original manuscript, long thought destoyed, which he used to make a new edition of Hoffmann, premiered at the Opéra de Lyon and recorded on the DVD that I reviewed in January.

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Jacques Offenbach, Des Contes d'Hoffman, Daniel Galvez-Vallejo, Natalie Dessay, Gabriel Bacquier, Jose Van Dam, Kent Nagano, Opéra de Lyon (1999)
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Jacques Offenbach, Les Contes d'Hoffman, Roberto Alagna, Jose van Dam, Natalie Dessay, Kent Nagano, Opéra de Lyon (1996)
Hoffmann learns over the course of the opera that the three women in his evening's tales—Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta—are all aspects of the woman he loves now, Stella, an opera singer appearing on the stage in Mozart's Don Giovanni at the opening of the opera. Those aspects of woman—a mechanical doll (technically perfect but soulless), an artist of fragile health (profound but too delicate), and an evil courtesan who steals his reflection—have encouraged a number of psychological analyses of the opera. I prefer to understand the opera as an expression of Offenbach's quest to find the perfect female singer. His original intention was to have the same singer portray all three of the love interest roles, although they are now (as in this production) usually sung by different singers because their technical demands are so different.

The most satisfying tale for me is the first, in which Hoffmann falls in love with a mechanical doll that a crazy inventor is trying to pass off as his daughter. The joke, of course, is that the automaton can be wound up like a toy and she will sung some of the most difficult coloratura passages ever conceived. I am sometimes surprised that coloratura sopranos ever want to sing this role, since the subtext of is that what coloraturas do is mechanical: spin the crank and listen to the high notes! (Soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird has some thoughts on coloratura singing at her blog The Concert.) However, when done well the role can create a phenomenon, as it did for Natalie Dessay, who sang magnificently on the Lyon DVD. Italian soprano Valeria Esposito was a sensation Saturday night, in terms of both her acting and her incredibly potent and accurate singing. Although she did not choose to take the super-high A-flat on the big aria's final note, as Dessay did, this was a performance that brought down the house.

Valeria Esposito will return to Baltimore next season, in the role of Amina in Bellini's La Sonnambula (November 2005). Along with their new production of Jake Heggie's recent opera Dead Man Walking (March 2006), I have at least two reasons to make the trip to Baltimore Opera next season.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, This 'Tales of Hoffmann' is nicely told (Baltimore Sun, May 2)

Cecelia Porter, Baltimore Opera (Washington Post, May 2)

Tim Smith, 'Tales of Hoffman' is a fantastical version of reality (Baltimore Sun, April 28)
Another Italian, Antonia Cifrone, was also effective in the more lyric role Antonia, with an excellent rendition of her signature aria "Elle a fui, la tourterelle." This role makes completely different demands on a soprano, as does the powerfully dramatic singing of the deceitful courtesan in the Venice act (now performed last, according to Offenbach's original intention), Giulietta. In Baltimore, this role is performed by American mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood, whose instrument is powerful enough to remove paint, a power that she used always with good judgment. All three of these voices are worth going to Baltimore to hear. Stratospheric range (Olympia), lyrical beauty (Antonia), booming volume and dark color (Giulietta): what makes up the perfect voice? Can you really have all three?

Also turning in good performances were American tenor Gerard Powers, who had some moments of powerful singing as Hoffmann, particularly in the hilarious "Kleinzach" aria in the first act. American mezzo-soprano Cynthia Jansen was at times difficult to hear as Hoffmann's muse, who takes on the shape of his friend Nicklausse, in an attempt to protect the poet. French baritone Alain Fondary certainly had the best diction in the cast (to my ear, some singers were apparently singing in languages other than French at times), but he was often lost in orchestral sound and/or at metric odds with conductor Christian Badea. His voice was suitably Satanic, for the most part, as his characters embody an evil force that is always working against Hoffmann. One interesting detail in this production was a supernumerary role, a sort of henchman to Fondary's villains, cloaked and hooded like the figure of Death. At the opera's conclusion, as Hoffmann passes out, this mysterious figure descends the staircase, as if preparing to take Hoffmann (we can read Offenbach) to the next world, after he has resolved to live only for his art. I think we can give the credit for this role to Christian Badea who is listed as conductor and director. The sets, designed by Ferruccio Villagrossi, were visually pleasing but not stunning. All in all, this production brings the Baltimore Opera's season to a satisfying close.

There are only three performances remaining, on Wednesday, May 4, at 7:30 pm; Friday, May 6, at 8:15 pm; and Sunday, May 8, at 3 pm. Do not assume that you cannot afford to go to the opera. Baltimore Opera has a very good reduced-rate program for young people (Extreme Opera, ages 18-27). You are also welcome to show up for student rush tickets, one hour before curtain: any unclaimed gallery tickets are sold off to those with valid student IDs for $23.

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