Lyric Opera of Chicago Opens New Season with “Tales of Hoffmann”

United StatesUnited States Offenbach, Tales of Hoffmann: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Emmanuel Villaume (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 21.10.2011 (JLZ)


Hoffmann: Matthew Polenzani
Four Villains (Councillor Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto): James Morris
Olympia: Anna Christy
Antonia: Erin Wall
Giulietta: Alyson Cambridge
Nicklausse/The Muse: Emily Fons
Four Servants: Rodell Rosel
Spalanzani: David Cangelosi



Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume
Original Production: Nicolas Joël
Stage Director: Stéphane Roche
Set Designer: Ezio Frigerio
Costume Designer: Franca Squarciapino
Lighting Designer: Jason Brown
Chorus Master: Michael Black

How to open the season of an opera company? While reliable, perhaps overly familiar works come to mind, famous ones with international femmes fatales might not set the same tone as something less frequently performed, and Lyric Opera of Chicago did well in selecting Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann to open the 2011-2012 season. The outstanding cast served the music beautifully, with Matthew Polenzani offering a consummate Hoffmann, full of lyric beauty, dramatic passion and persuasive acting. His character was ever on the edge, without resorting to histrionics. Polenzani’s reading of the “Kleinzach” aria gave contrasting ideas, and the first-act aria “J’ai des yeux” resonated beautifully. His duet with James Morris as Lindorf showed the ensemble strengths of both, allowing their characters to emerge clearly. This lyricism continued in the third act, where Polenzani offered an exemplary duet with Erin Wall – another point where the expressive sweetness matched the dramatic tension to intensify both emotions. Polenzani was impressive and consistent in all four acts, his character as strong in the epilogue as it was in the beginning.

As to the women in Hoffmann’s story, Emily Fons gave a winning depiction in the dual role of the Muse and Nicklause. Fons, a member of the Ryan Opera Center and familiar to Chicago audiences, has a supple, fluid mezzo with even tone and solid pitch throughout its range. In her character’s famous second-act “Vois sous l’archet frissant” (the so-called “Violin Aria”), Fons offered a moving account of this chestnut and was in fine voice elsewhere.

Anna Christy played the mechanical doll Olimpia with panache and vocal precision; her depiction of a machine underscored the drama, and emphasized the differences between mechanical renderings and human expression. Wall’s nuances made her singing stand apart from the vocalizing found in Christy’s in-character Olympia, Jamie Barton’s disembodied voice of Antonia’s mother (sung from the orchestra pit) and in Fons’s transformation into the Muse in the epilogue.

All of this worked within the dramatic tension between Hoffmann and his villains: Lindorf, Copelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto – all played by James Morris. Morris brought skill, experience and detail into each, accompanied by fluent vocalizing. Likewise, Christian van Horn was particularly effective as Antonia’s father Crespel. Van Horn was notably resonant, with a rich, articulate bass, good intonation and fine diction, especially memorable in the second-act trio. And vocally and dramatically, his tension with Hoffmann served as a counterpoint to Antonia’s passion.

The production from the Teatro Real, Madrid is shared with the Israeli Opera (Tel Aviv), Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and Teatro Regio di Torino. Two design elements are prominent: a nineteenth century-style circus billboard for the prologue and epilogue, and a train station that resembles Paris’s D’Orsay for the four acts. The latter makes some intriguing special effects possible, notably the use of a train for villains like Copelius to enter and exit. Otherwise, the set serves as a curious backdrop for other interiors, like Crespel’s home. For the final act, Giulietta’s scene is set in the eighteenth-century, including the costumes and powdered wigs that resemble paintings of Gainsborough, a slight shift from the otherwise unified theme. While the music remains strong – Alyson Cambridge is a resilient Giulietta – the shift of milieu (and use of stage fog) conveys a sense of a dream-world.

The use of the art form to talk about itself emerges powerfully. The strength is in the singers, whose consistent and persuasive performances give Tales of Hoffmann shape, and imprint vivid images. Emmanuel Villaume supported their work with fine direction, encouraging clear diction and a good balance between the instruments and the voices. He nicely brought out the musical allusions to Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the first act, as well as Offenbach’s recurring themes. All in all, this production is a fitting way to celebrate the new season, and sets a tone that bodes well for the months ahead.

This is a time of change for Lyric, with Anthony Freud taking the leadership of the company as its general director, along with Renée Fleming’s new role as creative consultant – and the company’s visible city-wide campaign, “Long Live Passion.” As Freud shapes the company, he may consider reviving other Offenbach works. Even the less familiar repertoire may inspire him – his expressed wish for an opera by Mahler exists, of course, in the well-crafted score for Die drei Pintos. Yet he will, no doubt, find ways to enhance the company’s already fine repertoire.

James L. Zychowicz

Note: Those visiting the Civic Opera House should keep in mind the massive construction project that affects east and south access. While Lyric has done its best to give advice (, visitors should add even more time, and on an additional note, the lobby of the building (at 16 N. Wacker) that was supposed to allow pedestrians access to the Lyric decided to lock the doors.