Opera Warhorses

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Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013

June 7th, 2013

Illinois native Matthew Polenzani, in an extraordinary exhibition of the art of the French lyric tenor, held the War Memorial Opera House stage for over three hours. Polenzani appeared in the title role of  French stage director’s fascinating re-conceptualization of Offenbach’s posthumous grand opera, “The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann)”.

Matthew Polenzani’s Hoffmann

The operatic character that Polenzani played was a disastrous failure, but  Polenzani’s operatic performance was a triumph.

Brilliantly acted, Polenzani presented a searing psychological portrait of a creative soul, who has has attempted to meet the expectations and demands upon him of an operatic diva, the shrewish Stella (played by debutante Jacqueline Piccolino).

Failing to relate to the mercurial aspects of Stella’s personality – which Hoffmann characterizes as a doll, a young girl, and a courtesan – he succumbs to drunkeness while, in the opera’s epilogue, Stella leaves, disgusted, with Hoffmann’s rival, Lindorf, whom Hoffmann regards as his nemesis.

[Below: Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In his hallucinatory mind, Hoffmann, at the opera’s beginning, imagines pursuing three women, whom in his dreams are named Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta. Each of the women, all personifications of a particular aspect of Stella’s demands, is destroyed  – in his dreamworlds – as a result of the conflict between himself and his villainous rival.

Polenzani, in his California appearances, has done elegant work in the Mozart  tenor repertory [see, for example, Conlon’s Magical Revival of Mozart’s “Flute” at L. A. Opera – January 10, 2009 and Cornelius Meister’s Admirable “Abduction”: San Francisco Opera – October 11, 2009], and as Rossini’s Count Almaviva in “Barber of Seville”.

Each of the Mozart and Rossini tenor  roles requires a particularly controlled style of vocal production. But Polenzani’s Hoffmann is a more multidimensional character and sings with a passionate romantic intensity absent from the Mozart’s and Rossini’s men.

Polenzani, now in his mid-40s, has grown into the great lyric roles of French and Italian opera that permit the tenor voice to soar.

For the role of Hoffmann, Offenbach wrote a whole songbook of melodious arias and duets for the love-tortured and alcohol-sotted character, in the French lyric tenor style that infuses the operas of Gounod and Bizet, Delibes and Massenet.

With new music and new dramatic emphases in a much longer version of “Hoffmann” than the opera’s Monte Carlo edition that held the world’s stages during the 20th century, the role of Hoffmann has become as demanding as any role the lyric tenor should assay.

Polenzani dispatched each of these arias with a consistently beautiful tone, while successfully negotiating the histrionic demands of Pelly’s staging. Hearing and seeing Polenzani’s Hoffmann was an extraordinary experience.

Laurent Pelly’s Conceptualization and Chantal Thomas’ Set Designs

I have reported on Pelly’s work in Paris, Santa Fe and, on one previous occasion in San Francisco [see Debuting Diana Damrau Delights as Donizetti Diva: San Francisco “Fille du Regiment” – October 13, 2009.]. His close collaborations with set designer Chantal Thomas always  create a particular mood or color for each production design.

[Below: Stage director-costume designer Laurent Pelly, edited imaage, based on a promotional photograph.]


Their new production of “Hoffmann”, a co-production between the San Francisco Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu, debuted at the latter opera house in Barcelona in February. Pelly and Thomas acknowledge the influence on the set design of 20th century Belgian artist Leon Spilliaert, whose angular architectural images and haunting portraits of human subjects earned him a distinctive reputation in the symbolist movement.

Faust, Hoffmann and Pelly

Of course, even the traditional version of “Hoffmann” on which much of the San Francisco audience was raised, consists of theatrical intepretations of the wild stories of the Romantic era literary genius, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and abound in such unreal elements as rose-colored glasses causing Hoffmann to fall in love with an automaton, a portrait that causes a girl to sing to death, a man without a shadow and Hoffmann himself without a mirror reflection.

The supernatural forces that pervade “Tales of Hoffmann” were to a large extent influenced by the creative team behind Gounod’s “Faust” – the dramatists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre who produced plays for the Parisian theater based on Goethe’s poem “Faust” and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s stories, and, subsequently, libretti for Gounod’s and Offenbach’s operas based on those theatrical dramatizations. Further, the publishing house for both the Gounod and Offenbach works was that of the enterprising Antoine de Choudens, and both “Faust” and “Hoffmann” were promoted by the impresario Leon Carvalho.

Gounod’s opera was revised at different times during Gounod’s long life, and tradition exists for both including or cutting scenes or parts of scenes or even reversing their order, depending on what story-line the stage director wishes to emphasize.  Inventive production designers and stage directors will exploit this wealth of material.

The pages of this website  have described the different “Fausts” of Francesca Zambello, Frank Corsaro, Jose Maria Condemi, David Gately, Des McAnuff and Stephen Lawless. Fundamental differences exist in each approach – even as basic as whether Faust goes to heaven or hell. So too are the opportunities to emphasize different storylines in “Hoffmann”.

Pelly’s approach to “Hoffmann” is to begin with a recently published edition of Offenbach’s opera that incorporates many pages of the opera that had been “lost” for a century after Offenbach’s death. [For my report on Christopher Alden’s production that performs the latest edition, see: Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010.]

But Pelly, somewhat like a production designer creating a new “Faust” (to the discomfort, I suspect, of some musicologists) has picked and chosen among the alternative versions of “Hoffmann” both old and new – even restoring an “inauthentic” aria that had been mined from another Offenbach work and placed into 1904’s Monte Carlo version to provide an aria for a lead basso.

What we get is Pelly’s “Hoffmann” (the San Francisco Opera administration now refers to it as the Barcelona version) that tells the story the way he wished to tell it.  Pelly’s staging and  Thomas’ Spilliaert-influenced sets emphasize the surreal worlds of dreams and hallucinations, which are particularly appropriate to this expanded performing edition of the opera.

[Below: the workshop of Spalanzani (Thomas Glenn, front left center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


As a harrowing example of the Spillieart influence, the portrait of Antonia’s mother (sung by the debuting mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa) that acts as an accomplice of Antonia’s wrongful death, is a large dark image, appearing like the negative of a black and white photograph, and projected on the stage’s black back wall as Mezzacappa  sings from a room below the stage.

Christian Van Horn’s Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dappertutto

The villain roles were sung by Christian Van Horn, a 35-year old New Yorker. I have admired his work in many of the important major comprimario roles for the bass voice, such as Brander in Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Colline in Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Santa Fe and Los Angeles Opera companies.

[Below: Christian van Horn as Coppelius; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, oourtesy of the San Francisco Opera.


But singing the role of the Four “Hoffmann” villains at the San Francisco Opera in Laurent Pelly’s new production is an important career milestone, and he took on this challenge with great distinction.

His villains were each sonorous and sinister. Clad in Pelly’s dark costumes, wandering through Thomas’ askew sets, van Horn was the presence that made every Hoffmann dream a nightmare. And, of course, that’s what van Horn was expected to do.

As an added bonus, van Horn got to sing the famous aria Scintille diamant that Offenbach would not have expected to see in “Hoffmann” – a treat that I suspect bassos will have very few opportunities to perform in future productions of this work. For the record, Van Horn performed it well.

Angela Brower’s Nicklausse

American soprano Angela Brower, whose career is now centered at Munich’s Bavarian Staatsoper, was an engaging Nicklausse, who represents both Hoffman’s poetic inspiration (his beleaguered Muse) and his companion through his pursuits of the three manifestations of Stella’s personality.

[Below: Angela Brower as Nicklausse; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


It was an auspicious San Francisco Opera debut for Brower, who like many lyric mezzos, is a specialist in the “trouser roles” of Mozart and Richard Strauss.

Hye Jung Lee’s Olympia

South Korean coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee, whose career has been nicely launched with important assignments, Madame Mao in San Francisco [See 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012] and Lisa in Miami [“Sonnambula” Reawakened: Rachele Gilmore’s, Michele Angelini’s Artistry, Vocal Fireworks Enliven Bellini’s Masterpiece – Florida Grand Opera, February 9, 2013], played the doll, Olympia.

[Below: Cochenille (Stephen Cole, left) and Spalanzani (Thomas Glenn, right) prepare the doll Olympia (Hye Jung Lee, center) for her singing performance; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]


Always, in any version of the opera, Hoffman’s romantic pursuit of the lifeless Olympia is a highlight. In this production, it unleashed Pelly’s talent for creating hilarious scenes. Olympia’s guests (performed by the San Francisco Opera chorus) were themselves automatons, while Olympia, attached to a large machine and wearing a bright-silver bell-shaped dress, sailed through the air as she sang her famous ballad. When not attached to the machine, Olympia glided about the ballroom (Hye Jung Lee wearing in-line skates for propulsion.)

Pelly’s staging was greeted with heartfelt  laughter from the audience and was, itself, worth the price of the ticket.

Natalie Dessay’s Antonia

Originally, the production was announced as a vehicle for the famous French soprano Natalie Dessay, who was to play the roles of Stella and each of the three other women (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) in both Barcelona and San Francisco. She often appears in new productions designed by Pelly and Thomas [See, for example, my review at Dessay’s Scintillating Role Debut as Violetta in Pelly’s Imaginative Santa Fe “Traviata” – July 3, 2009]. (In Barcelona, the Four Villains were played by her husband Laurent Naouri, who also was Germont in the Dessay-Pelly “Traviata”.)

[Below: Natalie Dessay as Antonia; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]

Dessay Concerned1

Ultimately, she decided to concentrate on the role of Antonia, which she performed very sympathetically, displaying the richly colored lyric voice for which she is renowned.

Irene Roberts’ Giulietta

In another San Francisco Opera debut suggesting an important future career, California soprano Irene Roberts took on the role of Giulietta. Although the Barcarolle that she sings with Brower’s Nicklausse is the most famous excerpt from the opera, the role of Giulietta in Pelly’s Venice scene differs from both the traditional version of “Hoffmann” and that of the Christopher Alden production cited above.

[Irene Roberts as the courtesan Giulietta; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Giulietta Solo1

The scene gave Pelly yet another opportunity for technological wizardry, with Hoffmann’s reflection disappearing from a mirror after it is stolen by Giulietta.

Other Artists

Stephen Cole performed the four so-called “grotesque roles” – Andres, Cochenille, Frantz (who gets a lively solo aria, which Cole amusingly performed) and  Pitichinnaccio.

James Creswell, whose work in important roles at the Los Angeles Opera I have praised, was excellent as Antonia’s father, Crespel. Thomas Glenn was effective as  Spalanzani.

Hadliegh Adams was Luther, Matthew Grills was Nathanael and Joo Won Kang was Hermann.

The Conductor was Patrick Fournillier, the lighting designer Joel Adam. Christian Rath was the Associate Director.


I highly recommend this absorbing production for the strong performance of Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and the excellent cast that supports him, and for the brilliant staging of Laurent Pelly.



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