review: San Francisco Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” at San Francisco Opera through July 6, 2013
At last Wednesday’s opening performance of Offenbach’s classic, The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), at San Francisco Opera, it was Olympia (soprano Hye Jung Lee), the mechanical doll, who stole the hearts of the audience and mezzo-soprano Angela Brower who triumphed in her remarkable company debut as the Muse/Nicklausse. Lee seemed to flutter magically across the stage, singing gleefully and hitting incredibly high notes with precision. For Brower, who sings throughout the entire opera, it was an act of wooing the audience with the sheer beauty of her voice.
This is French director, Laurent Pelly’s new co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and L’Opéra National de Lyon which had its premiere in Barcelona earlier this year. The libretto is by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the integral edition of the opera by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck. The story takes real life German poet E.T.A. Hoffmann and places him in three stories of failed love. Singing the title role is tenor Matthew Polenzani, whom many will recognize from his lead role in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, the delightful comic opera that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 season and was transmitted to millions via “Live in HD.” He was joined by the French soprano Natalie Dessay, as Antionia; Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as Olympia; mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts as Giuletta in her company debut, and American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower as the Muse, disguised as Hoffmann’s dear friend Nicklausse.
The opera’s staging, with set designs by Chantal Thomas, based on the moody work of the Belgian symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was exquisite in its simplicity. Massive blue walls framed the action and then angularly closed in or moved out, just like the cropping tool in Photoshop, resulting in refreshing new orientations. Low lighting bathed the set, evoking a dream-like space which lent itself to the dark tone of the story. Since 1988, Thomas has collaborated with Pelly in roughly 40 productions and two seem to be in harmony. Her ingenious Act II staging for Olympia the mechanical doll, which employed wonderfully zany machinery to spirit the doll across the stage, brought down the house.
Tenor Mathew Polenzani immediately caught my attention in the Prologue with his Il ètait une fois à la cour d’Eisenach, Hoffmann’s ballad about the dwarf Kleinzach, which sets the stage for his mind to wonder back to beautiful women and his love life. Throughout the evening he was in top form with lively and powerful singing but less commendable acting—on many occasions, it was hard to actually feel the love whose loss he was lamenting.
The surprise stand-out of the evening was American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower in her company debut as the Muse, disguised as Hoffmann’s dear friend and constant companion Nicklausse. In a move that is truly operatic, Bower stepped in rather later to replace Alice Coote in the production. She nailed it from the moment she stepped on stage, showing a real command of the role’s vocal and dramatic requirements and trumping most of the other better-known singers with her powerful voice, capable of such sweet and tender emotion. Her Act I aria Une poupèe aux yeux d’èmail was lush and energetic. Sung in the eccentric scientist Spalanzani’s parlor room, it warns Hoffman of a mechanical doll that looked human but fell in love with a copper bird. Brower comes to San Francisco fresh from her success in the role last season at the Bayerische Staastoper opposite Diana Damrau and Rolando Villazón— a performance that was broadcast on European television and captured for DVD. She is an ensemble member of the Bayerische Staatsoper. She was also quite lovely in her Act III duet with mezzo Irene Roberts, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amou.
If you saw nothing but Act I, Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee’s Olympia, the mechanical doll, it would have been worth the price of admission. Lee, a Merola Program alumna, dazzled SF Opera audiences last summer with her company debut performance as Madame Mao in John Adams’ Nixon in China. As Olympia, she outdid herself. Dressed in a silver gown, she fluttered around the stage, legless, leaving the audience to wonder how it was happening. She then took to the floor. Wearing hidden inline skates, she glided all around the stage, literally running circles around Hoffmann, all while hitting notes in the stratospheric range of E and F with precision. The audience gave her, and the ingenious device which served as her chariot, a well-deserved long ovation with several whoops and whistles.
It’s been six years since Natalie Dessay’s San Francisco Opera debut, and sole Bay Area appearance, in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. She was enchanting in Wednesday’s Act II as “Antonia,” and despite a noticeable decline in her upper register; she was lovely in her mid-range throughout the entire performance. Offenbach intended that the four soprano roles be played by the same singer, for Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann’s unattainable love. Dessay was originally scheduled to sing all three, a feat that only a few—like Beverly Sills and Edita Gruberoa—had pulled off in the past. Apparently, she pulled back after re-evaluating where her voice stands. She was wonderful in C’est une chanson d’amour, her love duet with Hoffmann. Its drama was heightened by the wizardry of the staging which transformed yet again, pulling them apart from each other into separate balconies where they sang longingly to each other.
There’s just one Dessay. Anyone familiar with her performances can’t help but love the verve and mettle this petite French dynamo brings to any role, many of which have been made accessible through the Met’s “Live in HD” telecasts. A special turn of her head, the flash of her eyes, a quick dash—I was living for identifiable “Dessay moves” and there were many. Her trio with her mother’s ghost (Margaret Mezzacappa) and Dr. Miracle (Christian Van Horn) was also lovely vocally but the creepy projected image of the ghost cast such a dark pallor over the idea of a benevolent spirit, that it was hard to feel the love connection between Antonia and her late mother. Copyright law prohibits a reproduction of the program cover which features Spilliaert’s intensely dark and oppressive self-portrait from 1907-8 where he seems to be transitioning into an angel of death. The heavy milieu of this work seemed to fuel this very disturbing and macabre video projection.
Tenor Steven Cole imbued his four servant roles (Frantz, Andres, Cohenille, Pittichinaccio) with distinct personality as did bass-baritone Christian Van Horne, who sang his villainous roles (Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto) with aplomb, especially Dapertutto’s difficult Act III Scintille, diamant. As Stella, Hoffmann’s Milanese love interest, Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino ended the long evening with a burst of bright energy.
Patrick Fournillier’s conducting was impressive throughout. He kept the orchestra under rein while evoking a beautiful and vibrant sound.
Details: The Tales of Hoffmann runs through July 6, 2013 at War Memorial Opera House. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
Remaining Performances: The eight remaining performances of The Tales of Hoffmann are June 11 (8 p.m.); June 14 (8 p.m.); June 20 (7:30 p.m.); June 23 (2 p.m.); June 27 (7:30 p.m.); June 30 (2 p.m.); July 3 (7:30 p.m.); and July 6 (8 p.m.) Click here to see cast scheduling information. Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.
Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended Garages: Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)
Olympia—Hye Jung Lee
Nicklausse, The Muse—Angela Bower
Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf—Christian Van Horn
Frantz, Andres, Cohenille, Pittichinaccio—Steven Cole
Antonia’s Mother—Margaret Mezzacappa
Hermann—Joo Won Kang
Schemil, Luther—Hadleigh Adams
Set Designer—Chantal Thomas
Lighting Designer—Joël Adam
Associate Director—Christian Räth
New libretto version/ dramaturg—Agathe Mélinand
Chorus Director—Ian Robertson
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