It has been over twenty years since Opera Theatre of St. Louis has seen fit to give us a production of Offenbach's last and possibly greatest work, The Tales of Hoffmann, and it's easy to imagine why. The challenge of finding a soprano who can handle the roles of all four of Hoffmann's love objects is substantial and even a non-realistic production like the current one still makes significant technical demands. That being the case, it's fortunate that the 2008 season opens with a Hoffmann that, despite the occasional misstep and fit of theatrical self-indulgence, is solidly entertaining and generally quite well sung.
Left uncompleted at the time of the composer's death, Hoffman is, by now, a bit of a mess. It has gone through numerous re-writes over the years, the most recent being a major critical edition by Michael Kaye and Offenbach expert Jean-Christophe Keck that takes into account hundreds of pages of previously unknown material unearthed in the 1970s and 1980s. It's this version that's used in the current production, and those who know the opera from older editions may find themselves raising the occasional eyebrow at some of the changes. Those eyebrows will be especially high during the opera's final moments when Hoffman, instead of passing out to the off-stage strains of the students' drinking song, joins the entire ensemble in a hymn of praise to the transformative power of art.
I still prefer the older, more downbeat ending, if only because it's truer to the real Hoffmann's early death from alcoholism and syphilis, but I can't deny the musical and dramatic impact of this one. If only they weren't all singing it to the ghost of Offenbach.
If you don't remember Offenbach being a character in his own opera, that's because this particular gimmick has been added by director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe, whose inventive work distinguished OTSL's Thaïs in 2003 and Beauty and the Beast in 2005. As they explain in their program note, they see this often-revised score as a labyrinth with the composer “misleading us through it all by hiding parts of his score and by playing some roles he has stolen from the singers”.
Hence a scene taken from real life and tacked on to the beginning, in which a bronze statue of Offenbach and The Muses is unveiled. As the opera proper begins the bronze figures come to life. The muse of poetry takes on the character of Hoffman's young friend Nicklausse (as the character does in previous versions of the libretto) while Offenbach takes on all of the comic servant roles and inserts himself in and between scenes in ways that are amusing at some times but annoying at others. In the opera's final moments, he becomes the center of attention, shifting the focus from Hoffman's redemption through poetry to (presumably) Offenbach's redemption of his final work.
The entire concept strikes me as imposed and unnecessary, but given the strength of the production as a whole, I'm willing to let it go.
Soprano Ailyn Pérez is impressive, to say the least, as the four objects of Hoffman's affection. The roles of the diva Stella, the singing doll Olympia, the mysteriously ill Antonia and the courtesan Giulietta are all vocally demanding in very different ways - so much so that many companies are obliged to abandon Offenbach's intention to have all the parts sung by the same actress. In taking on all four, Pérez is filling the shoes of some of some operatic giants, including Beverly Sills (whose performance opposite Norman Treigle as the villains so captivated me as a youth), Dame Joan Sutherland and Catherine Malfitano. She does so with great skill and while some of her vocal choices (especially in Olympia's coloratura passages) may offend purists, I found her performance completely persuasive.
Bass Kirk Eichelberger takes on the four villains and to my ears, at least, he sounded fine despite the fact that the roles require the extended range of a bass-baritone. His acting struck me as a bit 19th century artificial, but given that bass Jeremy Gaylon (as the various father figures) and tenor Matthew DiBattista (as the bronzed Offenbach) were mining the same vein, I suspect they may just be following Doucet's direction. DiBattista does make the comical roles very comical, however, and his Offenbach wig and makeup are a triumph of the art - credit Tom Watson for that bit of magic. Tenor Garrett Sorenson is a fine Hoffmann and mezzo Jennifer Johnson is captivating as Nicklausse and the Muse.
Stephen Lord, who also prepared the English translation, conducts the Opera Theatre orchestra with great skill. Players and singers got out of sync occasionally on opening night, but by the time you read this that will probably no longer be an issue.
From a purely theatrical perspective, the Doucet/Barbe team has loaded Hoffman up with a plethora of stage business and innovative design elements. That's both this production's greatest strength and biggest weakness, because while some of their ideas are delightful and serve the opera well, others are distracting or even annoying.
The ingenious bunraku-style mechanical creatures at Olympia's coming-out party are a good example of the former, along with visually striking costumes, such as Dapertutto's glittering black and scarlet number in the Venice sequence.
The latter include irrelevant images lifted from M.C. Escher, overdone slapstick in the Olympia scenes, Giulietta's distracting and unflattering seahorse outfit, and the sudden appearance, in the second act, of a giant puppet version of Antonia's mother manipulated by multiple Doctor Miracles. Arriving as it does at a moment of high drama, this sudden infusion of the absurd provoked stifled giggles from some of the opening night audience. Besides, seven Doctor Miracles is six too many.
That said, Opera Theatre's Tales of Hoffmann is still a generally gratifying production of an Offenbach classic, and well worth seeing. It runs in rotating repertory with the season's other three operas through June 28th at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information call 314-961-0644.
One final note: Tales of Hoffmann runs around three hours and fifteen minutes with two very short intermissions, neither of which leaves one enough time to do more than make a quick run to the appropriate washroom or hastily gulp down a glass of wine. Tacking on another five minutes to each intermission wouldn't make that much difference in overall running time and would enhance the experience of Opera Theatre's well-appointed concessions tent during these pleasant early summer evenings