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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Tales of Hoffman
by Laura Hitchcock
This controversial fantasy is closely dissected in several scholarly articles in the Los Angeles Opera program but we can be especially grateful for Artistic Director Placido Domingo's article incorporating his own insights after singing the title role 99 times and for the Director's Note of Marta Domingo which brings composer Jacques Offenbach very much alive, as well as detailing his influences on other composers. Offenbach, known for most of his life for his lilting operettas, yearned to leave his mark on the world with an opera and, for his final work, chose some of the tales of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose fantasies are precursors of today's surreal and horror genres.
This production is beautifully served by Marcus Haddock in the title role. His soaring voice never fails us and, as an actor, he projects Hoffmann's aspirations, passion and anguish with an instinct that does Offenbach proud. In Offenbach's libretto, Hoffmann is portrayed as a drunken poet torn between looking for love and the urgings of his muse (Elizabeth Batton who puts trousers on the muse to be Nicklausse, a buddy figure, but sings in every act with remarkable clarity and consistency).
Hoffmann's first passion in Act I turns out to be a mechanical doll, brilliantly portrayed by Sumi Jo who catches both the bird notes she's required to trill and the robotic body language she's required to have. His second crush is the seductive Venetian siren Guilietta (Milena Kitic), whose mellow voice suits her flaming beauty. In the third act, shades of La Boheme, Hoffmann is entranced by an ailing singer, Antonia (Andrea Rost), whose burning ambition to follow in the footsteps of her acclaimed mother destroys her when her singing causes her heart to fail.
In each act, including the Prologue and Epilogue, the villain is played by the devastating Samuel Raney whose dark rich voice forecasts the end of love every time. Fortunately Hoffmann has his muse to literally fall back on. Musically, this is a fascinating work. Act II's lilting Barcarolle and the mother's aria in Act III are among the opera canon's most popular and familiar works. But Hoffmann goes far beyond simple song forms in musical development, dramatic intensity and a demonstrable gift for exploiting the potential of his themes.
Offenbach, who died just after completing the score, originally put Antonia's story in the middle. A number of posthumous decisions shaped the opera into the version usually performed today and most musicians feel it honors the composer's evolution by climaxing the opera with some of his finest operatic music. Also, Antonia's tragic death reflects Offenbach's own.
Psychologically it is interesting to consider Offenbach's original concept. His romantic progress went from a passion for a figure who turned out to be a mechanical doll to a real loving girl who sacrificed herself and their love for her art to a heartless courtesan at the peak of her profession. In the Epilogue, Hoffman thinks he has found all three in a singer who spurns him as heartlessly as Guilietta. So, in Offenbach's version, instead of falling back on his muse because Antonia dies, Hoffmann withdraws from a history of bad choices. Not your typical operatic ending musically or structurally but intriguingly modern and honest.
The production design by Giovanni Agustinucci uses a spare towering set to highlight the story of the mechanical doll Olympia, a gloomy Bohemesque attic for doomed Antonia and a hearty beer hall for the Prologue and Epilogue. In Act II he uses opulence, blues and greens as a Venetian setting for Giulietta. It suits the character but loses the mystery evoked by the 1951 film version directed by Michael Powell and starring Moira Shearer, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.
Director Marta Domingo demonstrates an affinity for the many colors of Offenbach, lightly brushing his lyricism, deftly pacing the unique Olympia number and developing the harmonic complexity of the final act. She has brought out the acting talents in the singers, particularly Haddock, Rost, Raney and Fedderly, bringing the Tales to a well-rounded satisfying close.
Theater Books Make Great Gifts
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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