Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010

July 20th, 2010

Santa Fe Opera, which in its 54 year history has performed 13 operas by Richard Strauss, several in multiple seasons, has seldom mounted works by 19th century French composers, beyond Bizet’s “Carmen”. Thomas’ “Mignon” was done in 1982, and Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” (actually a 20th century work) was performed twice in the 1970s, and three Offenbach operettas are in the company history.

But in the past 25 seasons the only French works of the period were three rarities – Berlioz’ “Beatrice and Benedict”, and Massenet’s “Cherubin” (1989) and “Cendrillon” (2006). With the advent of the company’s third general director, Charles MacKay, the obvious avoidance of French works is changing in a big way, with a new production of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann)” this year and a new production of Gounod’s “Faust” commissioned to open the 2011 season. (How many companies with an international repertory have presented operas for 54 seasons without having touched an opera by Charles Gounod?)

The new production of “Hoffmann” is important, complex, constantly surprising, likely to be controversial, and boasts an incomparable cast, which even turned a last minute change of one of its four major cast members into a triumph.

There is much to talk about. I will organize this review into successive comments on the musical performance, the critical edition used, the sets and costumes, and Christopher Alden’s imaginative approach to the opera.

The casting was extraordinary. The role of Hoffmann was assayed by Paul Groves, who has become as important a tenor in the exotic French repertory as any tenor singing today. see: Night at the Museum: “Iphigenie en Tauride” Springs to Life in S. F. – June 17, 2007 and Berlioz’ Faust Fantastique: Lyric Opera Does “Damnation” – Chicago, March 8, 2010. See also my review from the 2009 summer festival: Christine Brewer, Paul Groves Lead Elegantly Sung “Alceste”: Santa Fe – August 1, 2009.

This is Not Your Father’s “Hoffmann”

In the edition presented in Santa Fe, the role of Hoffmann, which in its traditional form of the century past, was one of the most challenging in the French repertory is now a lengthier and even more demanding role vocally, with some extended passages of French dialogue also required.

[Below: Hoffmann (Paul Groves) writes feverishly with a bottle nearby; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The roles that constitute the objects of Hoffmann’s affection – Stella,  Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta – are, in the aggregate, much longer than in the traditional version. Giiulietta especially has much more to sing than was the convention when the “standard version” dominated the operatic scene.

Erin Wall sings each of these four parts. Although even in the “standard version” these three roles have sometimes been sung by the same artist (who will then also take the smaller role of Stella in the opera’s prologue and epilogue), Wall was even-handedly sumptuous in these parts, which are traditionally thought of as requiring different types of soprano. (For my review of her Pamina, see: Shining L. A. Opera “Magic Flute” on Sunny Matinee Day – January 11, 2009.)

But the most dramatic change is the much expanded role of Nicklausse. The standard version’s “alternate ending” (unlike its traditional ending) did make it more or less clear that Nicklausse is the personification of Hoffmann’s poetic muse. But in this edition, we learn this right off the bat, and the Muse will be either Nicklausse or herself as she pleases. With much new material, the role becomes a bravura part. Kate Lindsey, who has been a well-regarded artist,  should be able to ride this performance to new career heights. She was stunningly effective, and, at curtain calls, was the first of the four principal singers to receive a standing ovation.

A “villainous” surprise in Santa Fe

On the other hand, the roles of the Four Villains (Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dappertutto) were slightly diminished by the removal of non-authentic music, added early in its performance history, to shore up the roles back when the “villains” were usually played by different artists. Most notably, Captain Dappertutto, the Venice villain, loses his famous aria Scintille, diamant – which, of course, had never been intended by Offenbach to be part of “Hoffmann”.

As it were, Gidon Saks, who was scheduled to do all of the villain roles throughout the summer, was suffering from chronic laryngitis, and, on his doctor’s advice, had to withdraw from the entire season. Wayne Tigges, who was scheduled to sing the Vicar, Mr Gedge, in Britten’s “Albert Herring”, changed assignments to replace the departed Saks in “Hoffmann”.

Tigges, who had been impressive in the 2009 Santa Fe production of Gluck’s “Alceste” and had sung Donner in the Los Angeles Opera’s 2010 production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”, moved to a higher plane in his own career path with a strong performance of the four roles.

[Below: Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey, left) stands in opposition to Councillor Lindorf (Wayne Tigges); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

David Cangelosi (see my interview with him at Opera, Drama and the Character Tenor: An Interview with David Cangelosi) has long been associated with the four “grotesque” roles (Andres, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio). In this production, all four characters are merged into a ubiquitous presence, with virtually no attempt to differentiate them. That turned out not to be a problem at all.

Cangelosi gave an athletic performance, the stage director Christopher Alden not only using him to meet the vocal requirements of his four named characters, but for numerous stage routines from the mind of Alden, rather than Offenbach or his librettist, Jules Barbier. To show he could perform the core music of the “old” role as well as the new stage business, Cangelosi dispatched Frantz’ humorous aria Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre stylishly.

“Hoffmann” abounds in character parts that appear only in a single scene, but Alden utilizes all characters, regardess of which scenes we associate them with, throughout the opera. Surprisingly, two characters – Luther the tavern-keeper and Crespel, the violin-maker who is Antonia’s father – that one would not associate with one another – are combined as a single person. Even in Crespel’s ritualistic polishing of his violins, he wears his tavern-keeper’s apron. The part (or parts) was nicely played by Harold Wilson.

Each of the three other comprimario characters – Mark Schowalter’s Spalanzani, Jill Grove’s Antonia’s Mother, and Santa Fe Apprentice Artist Darik Knutsen’s Peter Schlemil – are present in every scene. Four students – played by Apprentice Artists Craig Verm, Benjamin LeClair, Albert J. Glueckert and Jorge Pergo – rounded out the large cast.

Stephen Lord, in his Santa Fe Opera debut, forged an effective team with the talented Santa Fe Opera orchestra.

The Kaye-Keck performing edition

One of the great musicological accomplishments of recent times is the effort to locate all the missing pages of Offenbach’s original manuscript score of “Tales of Hoffmann” and to reconstruct the opera in the form that literally represents Offenbach’s final thoughts, since he died several months before rehearsals for the opera’s premiere commenced. The rehearsals for the opera’s 1881 world premiere, indicated to management that the work was running too long. With Offenbach no longer alive to determine what to cut or change, others did so on his behalf, ultimately resulting in a much shorter “standard edition”  that held the boards for nearly a century.

(The Santa Fe audiences had a first hand insight into the Parisian management’s concern about the original version’s length. Now opera audiences are used to Wagnerian performances of five hours duration, and 21st century cinema audiences can sit through epic movies that exceed Wagner’s one act “Das Rheingold” in length by almost an hour. Even so, the Santa Fe performance – that with two intermissions lasts three and a half hours – resulted in a final curtain a half hour after midnight, since all of Santa Fe Opera’s July performances begin at 9 p.m.)

Although the “standard version” is now so discredited it is likely to be revived with decreasing frequency, if at all, the now available authoritative version by musicologists Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck must be regarded as an unfamiliar work to many members of any “Hoffmann” audience. Although it is not my intention to describe the differences between the discredited “standard” and the “authoritative” version in detail, the latter begins with an extended introduction to the prologue.

In that preface to the prologue, Hoffmann’s Muse lets us know that she will inhabit the body of Nicklausse, a young man, to accompany Hoffmann on his amorous, but unsuccessful, pursuits. The Olympia and Antonia scenes are approximately what they were in the standard version (however with the Antonia scene occurring before the  Giulietta scene in Venice). The Venice scene is much longer, containing much music and action that does not occur in the standard version, but without Dappertutto’s spurious “hit” aria. The epilogue is also considerably expanded.

The Allen Moyer unit set

I have sometimes been a detractor of the idea of unit sets in which all of an opera’s action takes place in generally the same setting, although in some cases I find such a conceptualization as praiseworthy. I also have quite different reactions to Moyer’s scenic designs for previous productions I have reviewed, appreciating some and deploring others. However, scenic design is a collaborative process and responsibility for what in my estimation does not work possibly rests with “production designers” whose ideas Moyer brings into reality.

This is the second collaboration I have seen between Moyer and director Christopher Alden. Their production of Thomson’s “The Mother of Us All”, which opened the San Francisco Opera 2003 season, proved controversial.

Yet, I have no reservations about praising Moyer’s elegant unit set for this “Hoffmann”. The basic idea is a large German beer hall that makes full use of the large-sized  Santa Fe Opera stage. Parallel rows of long tables each with sets of chairs furnish the tavern.

[Below: Hoffmann (Paul Groves) sings the tale of the dwarf Kleinzach to the enraptured students (Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

When the action moves to the locales of his three disappointing love affairs, the tables are re-arranged and equipment relating to each tale is moved into the scene.

Alden’s Exploration of the Artist’s Soul

Director Christopher Alden stated that he approached the opera as a “dreamy pre-Freudian exploration of the soul of the artist”. Although, his statement of purpose moves into “fear of the devaluation of the human soul” through industrialization, etc., one needs only to know we are in a dreamworld, and fantastic and inexplicable elements will take place.

The scene opens with a drunken Hoffmann, and with the Muse on the top of an upright piano. Also, surreally, sitting at the long tables are Spalanzani (from the Olympia scene) and the Mother from Antonia’s scene. The Muse caresses Hoffmann, then later, “shape-shifting” (Alden’s characterization for the transformation of Lindorf into the other villains) into the form of Nicklausse, awakens him from his stupor to sing the Kleinzach story.  After the chorus sings its  rousing drinking songs, and the initial encounters with Stella and Lindorf, the tables are rearranged to tell the tale of Olympia the automaton who appears real if seen through Coppelius’ rose-colored glasses.

[Below: Hoffmann (Paul Groves, left) uses rose-colored opera glasses that make the doll Olympia (Erin Wall, at harp) seem real, as Cochenille (David Cangelosi, to the harp’s left) and Spalanzani (Mark Schowalter, to the harp’s right) look on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

For the Antonia scene, the beer hall’s furnishings are draped in black mourning sheets with a large black wreath in the center. The crepe will be pulled away from one of those tables to reveal a row of footlights that will provide the stage on which, at the urging of her mother and the forces of darkness, Antonia will sing to her death. Opera boxes will be pushed out at stage right with students seated therein to watch Antonia’s fatal performance through their opera glasses. Those footlights and opera boxes will later re-emerge in the Venice scene.

[Below: Hoffmann (Paul Groves) accompanies Antonia (Erin Wall, right) on the piano as Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey, top) moves rhythmically; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The Giulietta scene with its spellbound card games, the loss and restoration of Schlemil’s shadow, and reflectionless mirrors, provides abundant opportunities for exposition of the surreal and bizarre.

The barcarolle is staged with the Muse singing with Giulietta. The septet (or more properly, sextet with chorus) that some previous musicologists had suspected was spurious, passed the Kaye-Keck legitimacy test, and was nicely performed.

[Below: Giulietta (Erin Wall, at the footlights) plays to the men in the opera boxes (Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers) as Hoffmann (Paul Groves, right) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The epilogue was much extended from the “standard version”, with a reprise of the tale of Kleinzach and a fascinating ensemble that follows Hoffmann’s call for a flaming alcoholic punch. As Hoffmann sinks into drunkenness, the characters from the various tales assemble around the punch bowl and tear up Hoffmann’s pages of writing and throw them in the punch’s flames.

“Hoffmann” is work that is consonant in spirit with the current 21st century fascination with the fantastic and magical. Christopher Alden had created a production of the “inauthentic” Guirard version of “Tales of Hoffmann” for the San Francisco Opera’s 1996-97 season (the season when the War Memorial Opera House was closed for earthquake repair and retrofitting.) One may be certain that he has followed the changes from Guirard to Kaye-Keck with close interest.

Alden’s conception is an idiomatic assessment of the work, that shows deep familiarity with the stories, the characters and interrelationships. His ideas about the work, particularly in its restored form, constantly surprise one.

To really know what Alden has going on, one needs to know the opera stories well, particularly the expanded story line of the Kaye-Keck edition. For those who know only the “standard version” that will at points be challenging. (A person sitting behind me was explaining to others that she knew nothing about the opera, or the story, and did not have time to even to read the synopsis in the program. She had the back of the Santa Fe Opera seat “subtitles”, but I wonder how much she really grasped.)

On the other hand, what is meant to be surreal is not meant to be precisely explained. (As I have said elsewhere, if you think you know what is going on in either Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” or Britten’s opera on the subject, you are almost surely wrong, or perhaps not. There’s no way of knowing, or even knowing whether James or Britten had a firm grasp of what was “really” happening.) Hoffman, Barbier, Offenbach and Alden provide the ingredients for a journey into surreality. If you aren’t sure what’s happening, you may be on as solid ground as anyone.

The vocal and orchestral performances are well worth the price of the ticket. The Moyer sets are eye-pleasing and often enchanting. The Alden staging is conceptually exotic and an adventure in the world of nightmares and dreams. His staging of Hoffmann’s combination of artistic genius and addiction is represented by hallucinatory images of arresting interest. As is usually the case, the greater one’s preparation for the experience of this production, the more likely one will “get” what is going on – to the extent that everything going on can be “got”.

I do not believe the “standard version” will survive long into this century. The new material is ultimately too dramatically powerful not to be used instead. We are beginning to reconnect with the musical and theatrical value of the great works of fantasy and exoticism that the Paris of Berlioz, Thomas, Gounod, Bizet, Delibes, Massenet, Saint-Saens and Debussy produced.

In virtually every case where we have a dispute between the composer’s intentions and accommodations to late 19th and 20th century staging, it appears the composer’s intentions are usually a more reliable guide to what we will like than the later adaptations of their work. As we learn what Offenbach intended “Hoffmann” to be, this is certainly true.

For a discussion of late 19th century Parisian opera, see: In Quest of Operas from Jules Barbier’s Paris.

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