Not Your Father’s Hoffmann

United StatesUnited States Offenbach, Tales of Hoffmann: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 5.6.2013 (HS)

Hoffmann: Matthew Polenzani
Antonia: Natalie Dessay
Olympia: Hye Jung Lee
Giulietta: Irene Roberts
Stella: Jacqueline Piccolino
Nicklausse, The Muse: Angela Brower
Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf: Christian Van Horn
Frantz, Andrès, Cochenille, Pittichinaccio: Steven Cole
Antonia’s Mother: Margaret Mezzacappa
Spalanzani: Thomas Glenn
Crespel: James Creswell
Nathanel: Matthew Grills
Herrmann: Joo Won Kang
Luther, Schlemil: Hadleigh Adams

Conductor: Patrick Fournillier
Director: Laurent Pelly
Set Designer: Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer: Joël Adam
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann) and Natalie Dessay (Antonia).  © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann) and Natalie Dessay (Antonia). © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Opera evolves, even ones we think we know. Verdi himself shuffled, rearranged, tightened and expanded Don Carlos/Don Carlo, and updated Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra and Aida into the versions we now hear. Puccini famously revised Madama Butterfly after it failed to get the response he wanted at its premiere. Various alternate endings have been offered for Puccini’s Turandot, including one by Luciano Berio that strays into harmonic and melodic territory Puccini never knew. Berg completed only two acts of Lulu before his death. Friedrich Cerha developed the composer’s sketches into a third act, which has now become the version usually seen.

As studious researchers turn up more historical information on familiar pieces, directors and conductors tinker with the familiar versions. How many mix-and-match versions of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov are there? Seventy-five or so? There are options to rearrange whole scenes in that one, omitting or including various elements along the way.

Composers themselves wrestle with virtually every opera even before the first performance, adding arias or scenes, rearranging elements, often to make it more stage worthy. After gauging audience reaction to his popular operettas at first performances, Jacques Offenbach was famous for tweaking. He never got to do that with Tales of Hoffmann, his work most performed today. He died several months before the premiere, leaving behind notes, sketches and bits and pieces. Some made it into the opening-night score, but in recent years, more have been discovered. Over the years, dozens of different versions have been cobbled together.

San Francisco Opera is taking a stab at a definitive version, incorporating recent research on long-lost Offenbach sketches. Whether it’s the new libretto, some substantive changes in the score, or the stark grey sets, this is a much darker, dangerous and psychologically vexing Hoffmann than most of us are accustomed to. (It was first seen earlier this year in Barcelona, where the Teatre de Liceu co-produced it along with San Francisco and Lyon.) Heard in its first performance Wednesday, it made a great impression, with a fine cast, superb chorus and energetic (if sometimes rhythmically off) orchestral work in support of the this production’s no-frills direction.

Oh, there is plenty of sparkle in the brighter moments of the music. The wacky waltz sung by the mechanical doll Olympia got a precise and flamboyant performance from soprano Hye Jung Lee (last heard here as a steely and scary Madame Mao in John Adams’ Nixon in China). This was all the more amazing as she performed the first part while soaring through the air on a well-hidden boom, and the final stanza on roller skates, all deftly hidden by a flaring silver dress. But most telling was the psychological and musical contrast in that scene, as the other principals dealt with their individual demons. To conductor Patrick Fournillier’s credit, he did not stint on the dark side.

Olympia is in the first of three tales the title character offers to a rowdy assemblage in a tavern, adjacent to the opera where his current obsession, an opera singer named Stella, is singing Mozart. Hoffmann, a poet, recounts the stories of the three women he idealizes too much, even though one is a mechanical contrivance, another is doomed to death if she sings and the last a conniving courtesan. He is bedeviled by excessive drink, although in this production we never see a glass or a bottle. We just hear the voices of the chorus representing the call of the booze.

Director Laurent Pelly opts at every turn for the abstract and the psychological over the obvious, and set designer Chantal Thomas keeps the walls, hat racks, benches and settees moving fluidly, as if in a dream—appropriately, a nightmare. (One glaring misstep was the trio in the second act, “Antonia.” The mother, described in the original libretto as a painting come to life, appears only as a projected face—in negative—à la he Wizard of Oz. Singing off stage, she was all but inaudible when her daughter and Dr. Miracle joined in. It sounded like a soprano-bass duet.)

Natalie Dessay, originally announced as singing all of Hoffmann’s loves, ended up doing only Antonia, here No. 2 in the lineup as Offenbach originally intended. Her soprano voice may not be as gleaming as it once was, but her portrayal as the conflicted young girl abounded in specificity, both physically and vocally. Mezzo soprano Irene Roberts made a lush-voiced and believably hard-hearted courtesan, always looking for the main chance, in the third (“Giulietta”) act.

Of the roughly 25 minutes of material restored from Offenbach’s original notes, much of it fleshes out the prologue and epilogue that frame the opera. It restores material that was cut before the first performance, and explores the darker side of the psychological landscape. This is especially noticeable in the epilogue, which spells out that, to Hoffmann, his three great loves are all aspects of Stella.

This also makes more work, particularly in the prologue and epilogue, for Matthew Polenzani, the indefatigable tenor singing Hoffmann, and Angela Brower, the mezzo-soprano singing Nicklausse, his protective sidekick and muse. Hoffmann, already a long sing, gets additional one-on-one scenes and a whole extra verse in the epilogue of the “Kleinzach” song from the prologue. To Polenzani’s credit, his lyric sound never showed strain, even at top volume. His dynamic shadings remained seamless and he seemed to have endless power in reserve for vocal climaxes at the end. Brower, returning to the U.S. opera stage after five years in Europe (she’s a regular at Bavarian State Opera), lavished supple and burnished splendor on Nicklausse’s music.

More significantly, they both inhabited their roles with detail and depth. Polenzani, who seemed immersed in every moment, created a wasted, tortured character that still showed glimmers of the dashing poet his lovers must have seen in him. Brower embodied the notion of a muse, a mythical creature taking on human dimensions to relate to Hoffmann, carrying herself with sturdy dignity even as she strove vainly to keep her guy out of trouble.

As all four villains, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn displayed rock solid tone, clarity and intonation, not inconsiderable assets. But he acted with little inflection, singing with unvarying dynamics and little attention to the sinuous phrasing possible in this music. As the four servants, tenor Steven Cole came close to stealing his scenes with plangent singing and deft comic turns. The smaller roles, mostly handled by current or recent members of the house’s singer development program, were notable for flawless singing and definition of character. Of special note, soprano Jacqueline Piccolini invested Stella with majestic sound, tenor Thomas Glenn played Spalanzani as a nerdy mad scientist, baritone James Creswell gave Crespel a flummoxed expression, and bass-baritone Hadleigh Adams caught the harried nature of the taverner Luther delightfully.

Harvey Steiman