At The L. A. Opera, Marta Domingo's production of Jacques Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" is a tremendous show that explores the depths of the artist's soul, the sources of inspiration, and the forces that always try to thwart him. The Muse competes with the three loves of the poet, takes the mortal form of Nicklausse to accompany him on his journeys, and wins him in the end.
The sets and costumes are spectacular. It opens in the tavern. It's all bathed in red with a dancer behind a semitransparent fire red screen stretching and dancing. It just reeks of passion. There's a gnarly chandelier hanging from the ceiling that looks like intertwined stag horns, with a figure standing in the center. Hoffmann's drinking in a corner. He's waiting for the opera diva, La Stella, to finish her show so he can be with her. Lindorf, his nemesis comes in, and introduces himself. His nature is too diabolical to attract women, so he resorts to bribery to get the key to La Stella's dressing room. She'll be expecting Hoffmann but instead, will get Lindorf.
Samuel Ramey is his riveting
self as the villain who stalks Hoffmann, throughout. He plays the series of
characters who try to thwart him. He seems like a personification of the force
that always tries to stop the artist.
The bar opens as the Chorus
joins in an earthy drinking song. The bartender behind the bar seems almost
as a judge presiding from his bench over the court. Hoffmann and Nicklausse
enter, and he falls down drunk. He sings of the deformed Kleinzach, which almost
seems like an autobiographical reference to his own failed loves, and how he
keeps picking himself back up.
Act 1 is in the elaborate parlor of the inventor Spalanzani. The big round door at the back is guarded on either side by two giant leering Nutcracker-like dolls. Olympia is wheeled in and back out in a big easy chair. The walls are panels of grotesquely disfigured faces and eyes. The puppet butler Cochenille sets the mood for the entire act with his mechanical movements. This act almost serves as Offenbach's rejection of his earlier works of comic operetta to move into the realm of dramatic opera. Coppelius enters from a door at the side that turns blood red. He shows Hoffmann his optical devices as the eyes in the wall light up and flash. Hoffmann buys the glasses, and when Olympia is wheeled in again, he's fascinated by her. Everyone but him sees the absurdity of the doll's mechanical movements. She bats her eyes in a ridiculous gesture that's devoid of any feeling. It's simply motion, nothing more. Her song of love brings down the house with it's beautiful trills and ludicrous movements.
Act Two opens and closes with the evocative barcarolle, an invocation to the night and pleasure itself. It's set in Venice, but looks like "1001 Nights" of a Middle Eastern harem. The courtesan Giulietta reclines on pillows, along with a number of other girls. There's a big candelabra on the right side of the stage with glowing orange lights. The curtain at the back rolls away to reveal a star studded sky with a big full moon. Dapertutto appears in a gondola, and persuades Guilietta with a diamond necklace to steal Hoffmann's reflection for him. She does, he's challenged to a duel by her protector, Dapertutto gives him a sword, and he kills Schlemil. Nicklausse leads him away as Giulietta laughs and shows off the necklace from the gondola.
The third act, Antonia, is set in what appears to be an attic. Everything is black, gray, and dull. Antonia and her father are both in black, with a statue of her mother in white, two big closets and a big skylight. Antonia's father has extracted a promise that she won't sing, since that killed her mother. Dr. Miracle is seen on a catwalk above the skylight. He enters from a stairway at the top with steam roiling at his feet. The father is scared to death of him, since he was present when the mother died. He demands to see Antonia, and she appears in white through one of the closet doors as steam roils around her. He persuades her to sing, and she is weak and stumbles off. When Miracle finally gets her alone, he persuades her to sing again. The statue of her mother comes alive, and Antonia sings herself to death.
The epilogue is back in
the bar. Hoffmann's dead drunk, and Lindorf knows now he'll get La Stella. They
leave. Hoffmann is left alone lying on the stage. Steam rises up around him,
and Nicklausse now as the Muse again embraces him and claims his love in the
name of poetry. His misfortunes have provided him with the inspiration to make
him a great poet.
This L. A. Opera production has an all-star cast led by Samuel Ramey as the villains, Lindorf, Dapertutto, Coppelius, and Dr. Miracle. Everywhere he appears he brings misfortune to Hoffmann. He's like the force that tries to block the artist at every turn, but instead solidifies him in his belief in himself by stripping away all the other parentheses. He will either conquer completely or will lead to the culmination of the artist's affirmation of himself in his art. Marcus Haddock is a strong Hoffmann. His frustrations only bend him, but he finds resiliency through his misfortunes. Sumi Jo's Olympia is stupendous. She's 100% believable in her ridiculous movement and gorgeous voice, and carries it through to the curtain calls to put the icing on the cake. Andrea Rost is an impressive Antonia, and Milena Kitic is a sensually predatory Giulietta. Elizabeth Batton is tremendous as the Muse and Nicklausse. She's always there for Hoffmann, cares for him, and picks him up every time he gets knocked down. Emmanuel Villaume leads the orchestra in this tremendous production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" at The L. A. Opera.