Opera Warhorses

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

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A Second Look: the Pelly-Polenzani “Tales of Hoffmann” at San Francisco Opera, June 23, 2013

June 26th, 2013

In my review of the Western Hemisphere premiere of Laurent Pelly’s new production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, I remarked favorably on both the Pelly’s concept and on the bravura performance of Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann [see Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013.]

As with any brilliant work of art, repeated experiences are likely to reconfirm one’s initial impressions and yield new insights. So it was with a second viewing of the San Francisco Opera mounting of Pelly’s production.

[Below: Hoffmann (Matthew Polenzani, left) is confronted by the Councillor Lindorf (Christian Van Horn, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


However, this production, which was first performed earlier this year at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, differs from Pelly’s original conception. The parts of Hoffmann’s love interest, Stella, and her three manifestations in Hoffmann’s imagination – the doll Olympia, the young girl Antonia, and the courtesan Giulietta – were designed to be sung by the same artist.

Not too long before the scheduled premiere in Barcelona, the artist for whom the new production was designed, soprano Natalie Dessay, decided to sing only the role of Antonia – reflecting her decision to reduce her future schedule of live performances and to take a “sabbatical” in calendar year 2015.

[Below: Antonia (Natalie Dessay, left) is gripped with fear as Dr Miracle (Christian van Horn, right)visits her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Dessay Frightened1

Since Dessay traditionally has been an important box office draw, I strongly suspect that neither the Barcelona nor San Francisco opera managements wished to see her complete withdrawal from the production.

Unfortunately, however, not having a soprano singing all four roles undercut a major point of Pelly’s production.

A single soprano singing the roles of all three dreamgirls (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) of  Hoffmann’s hallucinations complements the appearance of Hoffmann, Nicklausse the Muse, the Villain Figure and the comic servant in each dreamworld. It heightens the theatrical experience.

What Pelly Intended

In December, 2013, the production will open at the Opera de Lyon, the third co-sponsor of Pelly’s production (after Gran Teatre Liceu and San Francisco Opera.) There, two artists whose live performances I have admired – sopranos Patrizia Ciofi and Desiree Rancatore – are each scheduled to perform all four roles (each character wearing a symbolic red hair wig).

One can foresee the challenges that artists singing all four roles do. Instead, one needs only look at how the scenes are staged with the four different artists.

The Olympia scene is physically demanding. If during the first part of the scene, Olympia is strapped to a large machine that propels her across the room and through the air, in the manic latter part of the act, she is required to skate around the ballroom on in-line skates.

Antonia’s romantic moments with Hoffmann include an encounter across staircases and landings that break apart and come back together. With pieces of the staging in motion, Antonia must make a precisely timed transfer from the staircase to the landing high above the stage floor.

In the Giulietta scene, the artist is required to perform a series of gestures that are visible to the audience as reflections in a mirror  above the stage. It is, of course, a trick mirror, in which Hoffmann’s reflection, which his treacherous lover Giulietta has stolen from him, is no longer visible.

What the San Francisco audience got

Regardless of Pelly’s intent, Dessay’s Antonia proved to be affectingly acted and beautifully sung. The opportunity to see one of the great contemporary French artists, particularly one who is limiting her future operatic engagements, is a highly desirable experience.

So too, the Olympia, Hye Jung Lee, gave a memorable performance.

Having recently appeared in a secondary role in a performance in which I noted the stratospheric high notes of the lead soprano [“Sonnambula” Reawakened: Rachele Gilmore’s, Michele Angelini’s Artistry, Vocal Fireworks Enliven Bellini’s Masterpiece – Florida Grand Opera, February 9, 2013], Lee interpolated her own high F in her embellishments of Olympia’s aria.

[Below: Hye Jung Lee as Olympia (center, in red wig and silver dress) surrounded by the San Francisco Opera Chorus; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


There were many virtues of San Francisco Opera’s production worth noting. These include the nicely sung comic turn of Thomas Glenn’s Spalanzani, whose characterization belongs to the same fraternity of zany mad scientists as does Christopher Lloyd’s Dr Emmett Brown  in the “Back to the Future” cinematic trilogy.

[Below: Spalanzani (Thomas Glenn, left) encourages his “daughter’s” romance with Hoffmann (Mathhew Polenzani, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Engaging throughout the opera’s five scenes was the Nicklausse/Hoffmann’s Muse of Angela Brower.

The highlight of her performance was the Violin Aria, Vois sous l’archet fremissant (absent from the traditional Monte Carlo version), which Brower, as Nicklausse, performed with verve.

The instrumental sections of the Violin Aria were assayed with extraordinary virtuosity by the San Francisco Opera’s concertmeister, Kay Stern.

[Below: Concertmeister Kay Stern; resized image of a promotional photograph.]


The appearance of the multi-named villain was also imaginatively done, often with some over-the-top humor. Coppelius, who appears to deal in black market (maybe, black magic) eyes displays his vest filled with eyeballs, as the projection of a giant eyeball looks on from above.

Despite the efforts of Hoffmann and Crespel to keep Dr Miracle away from the stricken Antonia, Dr Miracle manages to appear in whatever part of the house he wishes, at one point positioning himself on part of a hanging ceiling lamp that ascends and descends at his will.

[Below: Dr Miracle (Christian van Horn, below, center) creates spells; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


James Creswell’s Crespel was the occasion of an impressive San Francisco Opera debut as Antonia’s father.

Creswell has been a notable presence at Los Angeles Opera, most recently in fine form as Daland, another father of a fated daughter [A Second Look: Lehnhoff’s Production of “Flying Dutchman” at Los Angeles Opera – March 24, 2013].

[Below: Crespel (James Creswell, right) holds his dying daughter, Antonia (Natalie Dessay, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Dessay Expired1

The decision to restore the aria Scintille, diamant for Captain Dappertutto, banished as inauthentic from the now authoritative edition of the score by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Koch, was controversial, and created Internet chatter among persons located  thousands of miles from the War Memorial Opera House. (Conductor Patrick Fournillier and the orchestra had to have inserts to their scores to perform it.)

Yet, this famous aria, so familiar to veteran “Hoffmann” audiences,worked theatrically, and, despite all the hubbub, helped set the tone for the expanded Giulietta scene, which, like the epilogue, is so different from the 109 year old Monte Carlo version of the opera that held the stage for decades.

[Below: the courtesan Giulietta (Irene Roberts, below left) finds that the jewels offered by Captain Dappertutto (Christian Van Horn, above right) justify her doing the nefarious tasks he assigns her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Giulietta Dapertutto1

Finally, one notes the extraordinary choreography of movement that takes place between the principals and the San Francisco Opera Chorus.

If at an earlier time in history, opera choruses stood in a mass and sang with occasional gestures, such an era is long gone.  A chorister these days is often called upon to display a character with a distinct personality. Or, alternatively, to join with other choristers to create a visual image, as one might expect from a modern dance group.

[Below: Hoffmann (Matthew Polenzani, center, in blue suit) confronts Giulietta (Irene Roberts, center right, with red hair); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Hoffmann Crowd1

As one of many examples in Pelly’s production, chorus members in the Hoffmann’s two arias about the Dwarf Kleinzach in the prologue and epilogue rely importantly on the coordinated body movements. The choristers move like mechanical automatons in the Olympia scene and are elegantly dressed orgy-participants in Giulietta’s Venetian apartments.

In summary, this is an extraordinary production of “Hoffmann” which should be seen more than once.

The production should be considered for a future revival, in which there are four principal singers (playing Hoffmann, Stella and her manifestations in Hoffmann’s tales, the Villain and Nicklausse), who appear in all scenes.




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