The Tales of Hoffman has all the ingredients to make it one of the most popular operas in the repertoire: comedy, tragedy, virtuoso singing, colorful characters, and memorable music. It is therefore not surprising that the work has earned the devotion of many fans, and they had reason to be delighted by the Boston Lyric Opera’s current production at the Shubert Theater. The voices were glorious, the sets and costumes sumptuous, the choreography in perfect step with the action and the music, and the stage direction finely balanced between the comic and the serious.
The Tales of Hoffman is actually several stories in one. As the synopsis in the BLO’s program book describes, the writer Hoffman has become so obsessed with the opera singer Stella that he suffers a psychological breakdown and divides his beloved into three personalities: “Olympia, the doll-symbol of woman as ‘object’; Antonia, the young singer starved for success but deprived by illness; and Giulietta, the courtesan who uses her beauty to seduce the unwary.” When Hoffman finally realizes that it is the real Stella who is the “perfect” woman, it is too late. He is left alone to devote himself to his art.
This is quite a tale for the psychiatrist’s couch, but the real Hoffman who wrote these bizarre stories and became the leading male character of the opera lived a life that was perhaps more fantastic and complex than its libretto. E.T.A. Hoffman was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in 1776, changed his third name to Amadeus in 1813 to honor Mozart, and died in 1822. At various times he was a lawyer, a painter, a composer of nine operas and most notably, a writer of mysterious and supernatural stories that had a powerful influence on Washington Irving, Edgar Alan Poe, and later mystery and science-fiction authors. Much of the raw material for Hoffman’s bizarre tales can be traced to his early life, when he grew up with a crazy mother in a crazy household. This, plus the tendency of his stories to reveal people’s hidden secrets, naturally attracted the interest of Sigmund Freud, who wrote “I have been reading off and on a few things by the ‘mad’ Hoffmann, mad, fantastic stuff, here and there a brilliant thought.”
The “mad, fantastic stuff” was obviously a great source of inspiration to Offenbach and to other composers as well. Delibes used Hoffman’s short story Der Sandmann for the libretto of his ballet Coppélia, and Tchaikovsky adapted Hoffman’s The Nutcraker and The Mouse King for the famous Nutcracker ballet. Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman is based on Der Sandmann and two other Hoffman short stories: Rath Krespel and Das verlorene.
It is a pity the composer did not live to see a performance of his masterpiece. He died on October 5, 1880, and The Tales of Hoffman received its premiere at the Opéra-Comique of Paris on February 10, 1881, in a version by Ernest Guiraud, who completed the opera and made a number of significant alterations. He replaced the numerous dialogues with recitatives, and even omitted Guilietta’s act, inserting the “Barcarolle” into Antonia’s act and Hoffmann’s aria “Amis! L’Amour tendre et rêvuer” into the Epilogue. When the work was first performed in Vienna in 1881, Giulietta’s act was restored but modified, the courtesan leaving the stage on a gondola accompanied by her lover Pittichinaccio.
The opera has undergone a number of transformations since that time. Stage director and choreographer Renaud Doucet, set and costume designer André Barbe, and conductor Keith Lockhart freely based their current production on the fine edition of Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, with the goal of remaining as faithful as possible to Offenbach’s original intentions. One of the most important was the composer’s desire to have the four soprano roles performed by a single singer. This makes The Tales of Hoffman one of the most challenging operas for a soprano, since a skilled coloratura singer with very high notes is needed for Olympia, while Antonia calls for a more lyric voice and Giulietta requires a dramatic soprano or even a mezzo-soprano. Adèle Isaac accomplished this tour-de-force in the 1881 premiere, and she has been followed by a long list of great singers in subsequent performances, including Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Edita Gruberova, Catherine Malfitano, and Ruth Ann Swenson.
The soprano in the Boston Lyric’s production, Georgia Jarman, has an enchanting voice, especially in the high registers, and was a fine comic actress as Olympia, but she was less successful in the more dramatic roles. Hoffman was sung by tenor Gerard Powers. He possesses a powerful instrument, but his intonation faltered in quieter passages, and some of his French pronunciation was questionable. The high points of the production were Michèle Losier as “La Muse/Nicklausse” and Gaétan Laperrière as “Lindorf/Coppélius/Le docteur Miracle/Dapartutto.” Losier boasts a stunning dramatic mezzo-soprano, and at times one wished that she would take off her mask and sing “Antonia.” Laperrière’s baritone was rich and commanding throughout. The secondary roles of “Offenbach/Cochenille/Frantz/Pittichinaccio” were superbly sung and acted by tenor Matthew DiBattista, and the chorus was a powerful presence on stage. Conductor Lockhart led the small orchestra with consummate skill, although there was a tendency for tempos to slow down and the orchestral dynamics to get louder in the final acts, sometimes to the point of overbalancing the singers.
An imaginative touch in the Boston Lyric Opera’s production was the inclusion of the composer himself in the proceedings. He first appears as a bronze statue, then steps down from his pedestal and participates in the action, sometimes even conducting or playing the cello. If Offenbach actually could have been there to see and hear this performance, I am sure he would have been pleased.
Mark Kroll, a harpsichordist and fortepianist well known to Boston music audiences, has toured extensively as performer, lecturer, and leader of master classes in Europe, South America, the Balkans, and the Middle East. His most recent book is Johann Nepomuk Hummel: A Musician and His World. His website is www.markkroll.com