Grigolo, Damrau, and Park Bring Hoffmann’s Tales Vividly to Life

United StatesUnited States Offenbach, The Tales of Hoffmann: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / Plácido Domingo (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 25.3.2017. (JRo)

The Tales of Hoffmann: photo credit - Ken Howard/LA Opera.
The Tales of Hoffmann (c) Ken Howard/LA Opera

Hoffmann – Vittorio Grigolo
The Four Villains – sung by Wayne Tigges, acted by Nicolas Testé
Antonia/Stella – Diana Damrau
Olympia – So Young Park
Giuletta – Kate Aldrich
Nicklausse/Muse – Kate Lindsey
The Four Servants – Christophe Mortagne
Spalanzani – Rodell Rosel
Voice of Antonia’s Mother – Sharmay Musacchio
Nathanael – Brian Michael Moore
Hermann – Theo Hoffman
Luther – Kihun Yoon
Schlémil – Daniel Armstrong
Crespel – Nicholas Brownlee

Director – Marta Domingo Set and Costume Design – Giovanni Agostinucci
Lighting – Alan Burrett
Chorus Director – Grant Gershon
Choreographer – Kitty McNamee

I’m a reader of fairytales with a particular devotion to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories, and Offenbach’s opera has always exerted a strong pull on my imagination. I approach every production with anticipation, much like a child who eagerly awaits a performance of The Nutcracker, another magical Hoffmann creation.

Opening night of LA Opera’s The Tales of Hoffmann held out hope for another satisfying encounter with this dramatically layered and complex opera, and in many ways it was rewarding. The singing of Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau was ravishing, and the performance of So Young Park as Olympia was perfection. But because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the production was compromised.

Nicolas Testé, scheduled to perform the Four Villains, was cursed with a cold and unable to sing. No substitute could be found, and at the last moment bass-baritone Wayne Tigges stepped in, singing the role from the pit while Testé lip-synced and acted on stage – a thankless task for both performers that cut the character in half and unbalanced the production. It was unfortunate, but a valiant effort was made to fulfill the adage, ‘the show must go on’. In the same spirit, this review will dispense with a situation that had obvious pitfalls and respond to those aspects of the production that functioned well.

The staging, a revival of the 2002 LA Opera co-production with the Mariinsky Theater and Washington National Opera, follows the Kaye and Keck edition of the opera. After the tavern prologue, where a drunken Hoffmann settles in to recount the stories of past loves, Act I tells ‘The Tale of Olympia’ in which the hero blindly falls for a mechanical doll. In Act II, ‘The Tale of Giuletta’ (historically the third act), Hoffmann is cheated out of his reflection by a grasping courtesan with whom he has fallen in love. Act III, ‘The Tale of Antonia’, is Hoffmann’s third romance. Engaged to marry a sickly young opera singer, his hopes for happiness are destroyed when she sings herself to death at the command of the demonic Dr. Miracle.

To my mind, this is the most satisfying order dramatically. Hoffmann grows in maturity with each romantic encounter, moving from a ridiculous infatuation with an automata and a hopeless attachment to a decadent courtesan to a worthier woman – an artist, like Hoffmann, who loves him in return. The movement is from comedy to tragedy, and Hoffmann, who at first literally views things through Coppélius’s rose-colored glasses, finally sees the world as it is, without sense and replete with loss. It is only the Muse who, by taking him into her heart, allows the poet Hoffmann to transform his grief into art.

With a lush lyric tenor, beautiful clarion tone, dramatic intensity, comedic charms, and leading-man looks, Grigolo is a Hoffmann for modern times. And who else has the elastic knees to sing the ‘Legend of Kleinzach’, the tale of a misbegotten dwarf, while skirting the floor like a Russian Kazatsky dancer. Bobbing like a marionette, Grigolo illuminated the song, inhabiting the soul of the dwarf and making his digression into singing of his lost love all the more poignant. The only ripple in his performance was a directorial decision to have him so drunk (he reminded me of Dudley Moore in the film Arthur) at the opening of the prologue that he had no way to convey even greater drunkenness by the epilogue. The men’s chorus filled the tavern scene with a raucous energy that served the music and the drama.

Some of director Marta Domingo’s touches were overwrought. Kate Aldrich as Giuletta vamped around the stage, her arms in a gauzy green caftan, grandly gesturing to the audience, her hips swaying in mock sexuality, her head cocked seductively. Mezzo Kate Lindsey managed to maintain her composure as Nicklausse, though the interpretation was at times more girlish sensuality than boyish fervor. Fortunately, Ms. Domingo allowed Lindsey the dignity she deserved when singing the Muse, which she brought off handsomely. The opening duet of Act II, the luscious ‘Barcarolle’, was disappointing:  the voices of Lindsey and Aldrich neither complimented nor reinforced each other. When merged with the marvelous LA Opera chorus, however, the beloved melody achieved the desired effect.

So Young Park’s Giuletta was one of those perfect casting decisions, matching the talented singer with a role that suited her gifts: she was an hypnotic mechanical doll. While her soprano soared, her body was in constant motion, vibrating back and forth and side to side. Thanks go to choreographer Kitty McNamee who did a wonderful job, but Park had the physical ability to take the character and make it her own.

Diana Damrau, originally scheduled to play all four heroines (including Stella, Hoffmann’s current love when the opera begins), was recovering from bronchitis but, fortunately, was able to perform the role of Antonia. A powerful singer with a glowing coloratura, she utterly convinced us of Antonia’s artistry – her need to fulfill her destiny as a singer – and her love for Hoffmann. Together, Damrau and Grigolo were a matchless pair, bringing the force of Hoffmann’s stories, Barbier’s libretto, and Offenbach’s dazzling music to its apex.

All the smaller roles were well defined and well performed. Christophe Mortagne played all four servants and could take on Alec Guinness’s multiple roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets. His Frantz, in particular, was an E.T.A. Hoffmann character come to life.

Though events on stage were not always as they should be owing to Testé’s illness, the orchestra, under the direction of Plácido Domingo, kept the evening on track, sharing the fullness of Offenbach’s score, from sumptuous melodies to propulsive rhythms. The traditional sets and costumes, designed by Giovanni Agostinucci for the 2002 production, are still eye-catching, from the rosy glow of Spalanzani’s workroom to the moody blue-green hues of Schlémil’s palazzo on the Grand Canal. Even the darkness of Luther’s tavern and the dreary home of Antonia and her father seemed a ripe setting for the devil to hold sway – a devil, who with luck, should soon be in voice and commanding the stage for upcoming performances of this most irresistible of operas.

Jane Rosenberg

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