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Ionarts in Santa Fe: 'Tales of Hoffmann'

Paul Groves (Hoffmann) and Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) in Tales of Hoffmann, Santa Fe Opera, 2010 (photo by Ken Howard)
The Santa Fe Opera’s grand production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann is true to the opera's original setting, yet cleverly innovative in terms of staging and lighting. Combined with the marvelous music making of the singers and orchestra, led by Stephen Lord of the Opera Theater of St. Louis (and heard at the August 11 performance), this memorable, humorous production is worth seeing.

Christopher Alden's production begins with poet Hoffmann’s muse of poetry Nicklausse (mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey) tucked away lying on an upright piano in a wood-paneled bar with long wooden tables and chairs, while Hoffmann (tenor Paul Groves) is face down at a table, drunk, with pages of his poetry at hand. A Romantic landscape painting reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich fills the entire back wall (sets by Allen Moyer), and the offstage chorus supplies several "pizzicati" to the orchestral texture. The singing Muse playfully moseys onto Hoffmann’s table, sprawling on her back in front of him and eventually embracing him, with the consequence of getting him writing again. Lindsey was effective in blending in to a scene and executing tuneful, tricky arias with laser-like precision. At the opera’s end, her final words to Hoffmann are: "Let your genius be reborn from the ashes of your heart… the Muse will soothe your sorrows."

available at Amazon
Offenbach, Des Contes d'Hoffmann, N. Dessay, Opéra de Lyon, K. Nagano

(new edition by Michael Kaye)
Hoffmann’s sorrows lie in his being “conquered” by the voices of three women, who the Muse explains to him are three in one -- all the prima, Stella. Hoffmann puts the Muse in a headlock for a second time at this revelation. The story unfolds with Hoffmann re-enacting in three acts the tales of Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta to an outstanding large chorus of soldiers who are later joined with dates. The drunk, rowdy soldiers egg Hoffmann on with medleys of drinking songs while the innkeeper Luther (Harold Wilson) fills their steins.

Soprano Erin Wall, last heard as Daphne in 2007, as Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and Stella hooks Hoffmann again and again with her “rapturous” singing, consistently exuding a cool confidence. The vocal demands of the roles were immense and included having to intentionally flub and miss notes as the automaton Olympia, who was only visible as a real woman through special glasses. The sword fight was in slow motion on top of a table with lighting that put its shadow on the wall. Other particularly effective blocking included having most of the singers onstage through the entire performance, with the principals placed on top of a table to add importance or separation.

Other Reviews:

Heidi Waleson, Santa Fe's Busy 'Tales,' Bloody 'Butterfly,' Tinny 'Flute' (Wall Street Journal, August 14)

Sarah Bryan Miller, A long and often-dreary "Tales of Hoffmann" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 8)

Scott Cantrell, Santa Fe production of Offenbach's unfinished 'Tales of Hoffmann' is cluttered, confusing (Dallas Morning News, August 5)

Brian Holt, All the World's a Stage (Out West Arts, July 31)

James M. Keller, Paul Groves shines in dizzying take on 'Tales' (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 18)
Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges stepped in for Gidon Saks (on vocal rest) for the entire run as Hoffmann’s nemeses Lindorf, Coppéllius, Dr. Miracle, and Cpt. Dapertutto with dramatic and musical impact, albeit with a tendency to over-achieve sharp on peak fermatas. Tigges transformed from the character Coppélius -- similar to Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man -- to the evil Dr. Miracle, framed under sickly green light (lighting by Pat Collins) while smacking similarly colored surgical gloves onto his hands before an ailing Antonia. Hoffmann’s dramatic performance was undeniably strong; however, the role does not garner similar vocal opportunities when compared to that of the other principals, so there were fewer opportunities to shine vocally, and Groves did not sound at his best.

Lord elicited seamless sweep from the orchestra, exploiting many opportunities for flexible tempo choices. It was worth waiting for the famed Barcarolle in the final act, though Lord should have made the decision to abandon the excruciating keyboard organ sound for a real fake organ (electronic organ) or nothing at all leading into the opera’s close. At the end, all were standing and singing brilliantly about how “one becomes great through love and greater still through tears” except for a dejected Hoffman, in a consoling embrace from the Muse. The orchestra then cut out partway into the last chord, giving the singers the gripping last word.

This production of The Tales of Hoffmann continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 28.

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