Jacques Offenbach died before completing Les contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman), which makes it something of a challenge, to say the least, in figuring out exactly how the opera should be done. As is usually the case when dealing with unfinished compositions, a raft of composers, producers, directors, and musicologists have since had a go at what they thought Offenbach would have wanted, and the results (in whatever version) have been good enough to earn Hoffman a much-loved place in the opera repertoire.
But the multiple versions (one critic called it a perpetual work-in-progress) also give producers and directors a great amount of leeway in deciding how they’re going to stage the work. And given the direction the Minnesota Opera has taken during its history, one had good reason to be apprehensive when approaching this year’s production. Ultimately, these apprehensions were mostly groundless in the season’s fourth performance of Hoffman Thursday night at the Ordway.
There was much to like about this Hoffman; the sets, for one thing. Having gotten used (resigned) to the MO’s minimalist staging of recent years, the comparatively lavish sets (which came from the Seattle Opera’s 2005 production) were a delightful surprise. The appearance of the Venetian canals at the start of Act Three produced an audible gasp in the audience, and there were other expressions of pleasure throughout the performance.
The singers were pretty good, too. Richard Troxell, in the title role of the drunken poet, displayed a certain degenerate charm that makes Hoffman an appealing anti-hero. Even though much of his misery is self-inflicted, you can’t help rooting for him even while you’re castigating his decisions. Troxell combined a pleasing vocal style with a physicality that made the role, well, sing. Since Hoffman is in virtually every scene (with the exception, oddly enough, of Act Two, which often is the most affecting) the role requires someone up to the task. Troxell fit the bill.
As Hoffman’s Muse, who masquerades as his friend Nicklausse throughout most of the opera, Adriana Zabala provides a most adequate sidekick. The Muse is a jealous lover who wants Hoffman for herself (the artist dedicated to his art), yet her desire to protect him from the situations into which he constantly gets himself seems born of a genuine concern and love at least as much as jealousy. Zabala’s Nicklausse displays a good-humored exasperation with Hoffman, but it is always discreet, never overbearing. She won the lion’s share of the applause at the curtain, for good reason.
Dean Peterson was poised to steal the whole thing in the showy role of the four villains – Lindorf, Dr. Miracle, Coppelius and Dapertutto – who torment Hoffman throughout the opera. These roles are generally played by the same bass in the same way that Hoffman’s loves are often played by the same soprano, but more on that later. With shaved head and dark glasses, Peterson evoked a sinister, Lex Luthor-like aura that was extremely effective. Why didn’t he get more applause at the end? I don’t know – perhaps, because of his costume changes, not everyone realized it was the same actor throughout?
And there were other good things, too – the dancing wine bottles of the prologue, the use of marionettes in Act Three to demonstrate Peterson’s Dapertutto as the puppet-master manipulating poor Hoffman, and the singers in many of the supporting roles, just to name a few. But of course, being the Minnesota Opera, there were going to be some things that didn’t work quite as well. And while they weren’t fatal to the production, they couldn’t be ignored either.
First of all, there’s the casting of Hoffman’s leading ladies. In his pre-concert talk, Artistic Director Dale Johnson noted that this production (unlike the MO’s previous production of Hoffman ten years ago) had opted not to follow the occasional practice of casting a single soprano in the roles of Hoffman’s three lost loves – Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta – as well as his current love, Stella. And I’m not sure this was the right decision. As Wikipedia notes, “[i]t is important that the four soprano roles be played by the same singer, for Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia, are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann's unreachable love.”
Johnson’s rationale for the casting was to emphasis the “distinct personalities” of each of the women. I suppose this could be a defensible decision, but it’s just as likely that the MO, continuing to pour money into needless commissions for unnecessary operas such as the upcoming Grapes of Wrath, probably couldn’t afford the big bucks needed to get a soprano who could handle such a wide-ranging role.
This isn’t necessarily a knock on the singers portraying the women in the current production. True, Alison Bates’ Giulietta was the weakest of the lot – her voice had difficulty projecting to the upper reaches of the Ordway, and her acting never seemed to really convey the courtesan’s personality – but then, Giulietta is the least fleshed-out of Hoffman’s loves in the first place, being almost entirely created after Offenbach’s death. And the MO’s abruptly brief version of the already-short Act Three didn’t give us much of a chance to get to know her anyway.
As for the others, Nili Riemer was exceedingly charming as Olympia, the robot with whom Hoffman falls in love in the first act, and Karin Wolverton affectingly winsome as the doomed Antonia, Hoffman’s second act love. We don’t get to see much of Lisa Butcher’s Stella, the current object of Hoffman’s affections, who appears only in the prologue and epilogue.
But let’s return for a moment to the question of one soprano playing all four roles, which has been done in the past to great effect, notably by Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. Now, it’s true that this type of casting can result in the soprano role overshadowing that of Hoffman himself. I’m not sure if Offenbach himself intended for the casting to be thus, but in an opera that can struggle at times with narrative cohesion, having such a dominant presence can’t hurt.
Which leads me to my second misgiving about Hoffman, that sense of a certain something that was missing. And it is this: a sense of warmth, of pathos. The tale of Hoffman is, at heart, a bittersweet one. For all the uproarious comedy of Act One, for all of Hoffman’s drunken charm, there’s no denying that losing your three great loves in life – no matter how real or imaginary the love might have been – is a heck of a bad thing to have happen to you. And despite the Muse’s promise that Hoffman’s true fulfillment in life will come not from love but from art (and we all know how vital suffering is to the production of great art), the opera still seems to demand a certain level of melancholy. The prologue and epilogue bookend an epic type of story, a man’s journey through a life of love and loss. John Paul II often spoke of the “drama” of ordinary life, and Hoffman’s life provides that kind of drama in spades. Only it didn’t quite come through in this production.
Perhaps the editorial decisions made in assembling this version had something to do with it. Johnson explained that based on amount of material available, the opera could have run five hours; as it was, it ran three-and-a-quarter. And although Act Three has always been the most problematic, it still seemed to end rather suddenly, leaving Hoffman’s third lost love as little more than a footnote. (And a live one at that, unlike many of the versions that provide her with an accidental death.)
Maybe it had something to do with the broad farce of Act One, the absurdity of falling in love with a doll (unless you’re talking about Julie Newmar) obscuring the sense of loss which Hoffman nonetheless felt upon learning the truth. Act One’s comedy combined with Act Three’s brevity serve to isolate the tragedy of Act Two, the only one in which Hoffman’s loss has a truly emotional impact on the audience (which might be one reason why this act has frequently been staged as Act Three, with its dramatic musical climax providing the perfect lead to the epilogue.)
Or it could be the lack of a sense of time passing, of an older Hoffman looking back on a life lived long, if not always well, ala Cyrano.
Whatever the reason, it was clear that something was lacking, somewhere. After sitting through a three-hour-plus drama, the listener’s pleasure should be combined with a sense of coming to the end of a long journey, a shared experience that leaves everyone emotionally drained. And despite the enthusiastic response of the audience as the final curtain fell, I didn’t sense that feeling in the applause which greeted the singers at the curtain call. It was appreciative, but not overwhelming.
Jacques Lacombe, making his Minnesota Opera debut in the pit, did a nice job with Offenbach’s beautiful melodies, although there were times when the orchestra threatened to overwhelm some of the singer’s quieter moments, as in the Barcarolle at the start of the third act. The Barcarolle should be noted as a singular disappointment; it’s probably the most famous piece of music from Hoffman, the one with which the public at large is most familiar. It features a duet between Giulietta and Nicklausse, cast against the backdrop of the gondoliers piloting their boats through the canals of Venice, with the chorus joining in. It was a beautiful scene as staged on Thursday, except you couldn’t really hear any of the singers. And while it should be added that it’s always difficult to tell whether this is the fault of the orchestra or the Ordway’s miserable acoustics (maybe we need to rethink our opposition to mics on the singers after all), it remains true that anyone attending Hoffman looking forward to the express purpose of reveling in the Barcarolle would have been let down. And the feature piece of any opera shouldn’t make you feel that way.
In the long run, while these shortcomings do qualify as more than just quibbles, they ultimately failed to overshadow a production that might have been better in parts but seldom failed to charm or excite. It was far from the worst the Minnesota Opera has to offer. And, given the MO’s track record over the last few years, that’s reason enough for at least two-and-a-half cheers.