I have always loved Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. (Fr. Les Contes d’Hoffmann). With its colorful characters, bizarre, sometimes downright creepy stories, and imaginative sets and costumes-what’s not to like? As in any opera, however, the music determines its success, and Hoffmann contains glorious music in spades, from the energetic Kleinzach song, to Olympia’s beautifully ornate paean to the birds, to Giulietta and Nicklausse’s Barcarole, and to Antonia’s beautiful love song, each number fits the characters perfectly. Therefore, I was definitely looking forward to the Los Angeles Opera Hoffmann, with Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo (he has taken to placing an accent over the first “o” in his name so that people will pronounce it correctly as GriGOlo and not GRIgolo) singing the title role, German soprano Diana Damrau as the four ladies, and her husband, Nicolas Testé, singing the four villains. There were a few mishaps with this proposed arrangement on opening night, March 25, but I enjoyed the performance nevertheless.
The Mishaps. A month or more ago, LA Opera announced that Diana Damrau was suffering from bronchitis, and would sing only Antonia and portray Stella, a non-singing part. Korean soprano, So Young Park was engaged to sing Olympia and mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, San Diego’s Arden Scott, in Great Scott, would sing Giulietta. That all sounded fine to me, but then we were surprised on opening night, when conductor Placido Domingo announced that Nicolas Testé was suffering from such a bad cold, he could not sing. They flew in American bass-baritone, Wayne Tigges (San Diego’s Escamillo in 2011) to substitute, but since he had not rehearsed the part, he sang from the orchestra pit while Testé acted and lip-synched the role on the stage. Given that it was opening night, there were some places where the two were out of sync, and it was strange when the character’s voice did not come from Testé’s location on the stage, but it worked out well-enough and certainly did not spoil the evening for me. In fact, it was a new experience for me, something I have read about, but never seen, which I can talk about with relish as an old opera hand.
The Production. Since I have been attending opera, The Tales of Hoffman has changed. My first Hoffmann took place in San Diego in 1979, directed by Tito Capobianco with sets by Ming Cho Lee. In that Hoffmann, Nicklausse was just Nicklausse and did not turn into the Muse until the very end. The Prologue was considerably shorter. Later, in 1985, San Diego Opera presented the “Oeser Edition” of Hoffmann, which was then considered definitive, but has since been discredited, with a more extended Prologue and Epilogue. The Giulietta Scene was placed last and scholars still agree that was the intended order. In 1994, San Diego Opera presented its last Hoffmann (and given the expense of this opera, perhaps the last in my lifetime) conducted by Richard Bonynge, who insisted that the opera was best presented with the Antonia Scene last even if Offenbach thought otherwise. It is makes for a more forceful last tale by ending with Antonia’s tragic death, but it does tend to make the Epilogue seem a bit anti-climactic.
The Los Angeles production, which put the Antonia Scene last, was “conceived by Marta Domingo,” but the scenery and costumes were created by Giovanni Agostinucci. They were spectacularly beautiful, with interesting touches, such as white birds flying through the Antonia Scene and the use of a statue rather than a portrait of the dead mother. I had some quibbles with Marta Domingo’s direction; e.g., Dr. Miracle announcing Antonia’s death almost from the wings, rather than over her body, but overall it was well presented, especially the Olympia Scene, which was hilarious at times but ended with Hoffmann’s horrified shudder when he realizes he has fallen for an automaton.
The Singers. Tenor Vittorio Grigòlo has improved since I last saw him sing in the Los Angeles Opera 2011 Roméo et Juliette. In that production, despite a fine voice and decent acting, I felt he did not project the passion necessary for a convincing Roméo. Although he still does not move me as some tenors have done, he was better as Hoffmann, singing beautifully, and with more expression. He also displayed considerable athleticism, jumping around the stage in a squat while imitating the gnome Kleinzach. So Young Park was a superb Olympia, both in her robotic acting and in her superb singing of Olympia’s aria, ornamenting tastefully, and not overdoing it, as has been the case lately with some sopranos. Kate Aldrich was a fine Giulietta, and placing the Antonia Scene last could have been justified in itself by the beautiful and expressive singing of Diana Damrau as Antonia. Rodel Rosel was a fine, funny Spalanzani and Christophe Montagne excellent as the four servants, especially as Frantz. Wayne Tigges sang well from the pit-I had no trouble hearing him, and Nicolas Testé acted out the role about as best one could without actually singing.
Kate Lindsey practically owns the role of the Muse/Nicklausse and was excellent.
Despite the chorus and orchestra being out of sync for a moment at the beginning of the Antonia Scene, Placido Domingo, as conductor, brought the whole thing off well.
In closing, I note that the program for the opera contains an fascinating short discussion of the life of E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose works inspired this opera and many other pieces, including Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. If you attend, it is well worth reading.