Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).



Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Anna Christy as Olympia [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
09 Nov 2011

Tales of Hoffmann, Chicago

For its first production of the new season, Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Lyric Opera of Chicago assembled a distinguished roster of soloists with the Lyric Opera Orchestra under the direction of Emmanuel Villaume.

Jacques Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann

Click here for cast and other production information.

Above: Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Anna Christy as Olympia

Photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago


Those characters populating the stage from start to finish include an incarnation of the writer Hoffmann and his Muse, the latter figure appearing also as the confidante Niklausse. Hoffmann’s recurring nemeses, or the villains of individual acts, add of course to the sense of continuity throughout the piece. The lead roles in this production are strongly cast with Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann, Emily Fons as the Muse/ Niklausse, and James Morris assuming the personae of Hoffmann’s opponents.

Hoffmann_Chicago_2011_04.gifAlyson Cambridge as Giulietta and Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann

As in comparable productions of Offenbach’s late opera the prologue and first act are performed together. At the start of the prologue in this conception pantomimic gestures show the inebriated Hoffmann being helped from the stage by his Muse, just as Councillor Lindorf assumes his position before a backdrop at the center. Lindorf’s rivalry with Hoffmann is now focused on the diva Stella who currently sings in a local production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. As Lindorf bribes the diva’s servant to surrender a communication intended for Hoffmann, the Councillor assures that he has the advantage of a devilish spirit with an extended pitch on ”diable.” In opposition to the “poète” Morris concludes his self-declaration with an effectively declaimed “je suis vif.” This scene is effective not only as a motivation for Hoffmann’s relating his amorous adventures but also as a key to the opera’s conclusion when Stella indeed leaves the stage accompanied by Lindorf.

During the remainder of the prologue the scene takes place in Luther’s tavern. The collected male students, portrayed in a large tableau by the Lyric Opera Chorus, are clearly inspired during intermission at the neighboring opera and raise toasts to Stella. Once Hoffmann and Niklausse appear at the tavern, the repartee with the students leads to Hoffmann’s well-known chanson about the dwarf Kleinzach. As Hoffmann describes in his ballad the face of Kleinzach his mind wanders to focus on his love for Stella. In this mixture of musical styles and the subsequent veneration of Stella, Polenzani interspersed a clear sense of legato with lyrical outbursts sung forte (“figure,” “trois âmes dans une seule âme”) and showing exquisite control of pitch. In his final cresting declaration before the close of the prologue Polenzani introduces vocally Hoffmann’s emotional state in preparation for the narratives of the following acts. (“Du bon sens”)

Hoffmann_Chicago_2011_02.gifEmily Fons as Nicklausse and Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann

In each of these subsequent acts an amorous entanglement leads to hope and disappointment. The female objects of Hoffmann’s infatuation, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta, are sung in this production by Anna Christy, Erin Wall, and Alyson Cambridge. As Hoffmann first steals a glance at the mechanical doll Olympia in Act I, Polenzani’s lyrical technique bloomed yet further beyond his singing in the prologue. He sang at times piano with an effective use of diminuendo as he described his devotion to the study of physics primarily as a means to approaching the professor’s daughter Olympia. These lines became even more credible for the persona of Hoffmann as Polenzani’s characterization was delineated with effortless top notes. Before the doll sings her famous aria Niklausse arrives and comments on Hoffmann’s delusion and emotional distraction. Here Ms. Fons sang her first solo piece with lyrical ease and presented an amusing caricature of the doll as she mimicked it both vocally and with her own physically lithe gestures. Hoffmann refuses to heed common sense and listens enraptured to the doll Olympia’s voice. In this role Ms. Christy excelled at combining a bright upper register in her melodic line with skillful coloratura decoration. At the same time she sang in the spirit of the character so that her voice took on the mechanical quality which her body communicated through gestures, as she performed fixed in a rotating movable base. In his response to Olympia’s movements and speech Polenzani depicts Hoffmann lost in his passion while he casts off volleys of lyrical devotion. As Olympia’s identity is finally revealed Polenzani concluded the act together with the chorus in alternating cries of “Un automate” sung forte and with absolute control of pitch.

In Act II the characters Antonia, her father Crespel, and the voice of her deceased mother contribute to Hoffmann’s second involvement. Erin Wall sang a touching rendition of Antonia’s wistful opening romance, “Elle a fui” [“She has flown away”]. Ms. Wall varied her approach so that her softest notes blended fittingly with more dramatic and fully voiced lines. In the role of Crespel bass-baritone Christian Van Horn made a strong impression as Antonia’s protective father. As he implored his weakened child to sing no longer, even the simple phrase “Je t’en prie” [“I beg of you”] was infused by Mr. Van Horn with memorable resonance. When Hoffmann and Niklausse enter on this scene, the servant Frantz — sung her by Rodell Rosel with comic delight — is alone, having just finished a pantominic dance. Hoffmann begs to be admitted to his beloved Antonia’s presence, a meeting which Frantz has been forbidden to allow. In the following series of set pieces the characters reflect on both the role of love and on their own emotions. As one of the highlights of this productions Ms. Fons sang the second aria for Niklausse while she tries to persuade Hoffmann to devote himself to love as art (“Vois sous l’archet frémissant” [“See beneath the quivering bow”]). Fons used her voice with its secure low notes to great effect in expressing the dominant spirit of “l’amour vainqueur,” just as she concluded the aria by drawing on the exciting upper extension of her range. Niklausse makes himself scarce at the reappearance of Antonia who now finally sings together with Hoffmann. In their duet Wall and Polenzani showed refined passagework, their voices moving apart and, again, in unison with emotional commitment. At the entrance of Dr. Miracle, sung by Morris, Crespel expresses great concern for his daughter’s well-being. Ultimately Antonia succumbs to the persuasions of Dr. Miracle and to the voice of her dead mother, sung here with resonance and authority by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in her debut at Lyric Opera. When Hoffmann attempts to summon help, his beloved Antonia has already died.

Hoffmann_Chicago_2011_03.gifErin Wall as Antonia and James Morris as Dr Miracle

The final involvement in the protagonist’s series of adventures carries him to Giulietta’s palazzo in Venice. At the start of the final act she and Niklausse sing the famous barcarolle; in this performance both voices were distinctly audible as though both were woven into the melody. The signature bass aria, “Scintille, diamante,” sung by Dapertutto to tempt Giulietta, was sung by Morris with an attentive sense of line. Ms. Cambridge fulfills well the vocal and dramatic challenges of her role, yet at times her use of vibrato can lead to stylization.

In the epilogue to the opera Hoffmann has finished the narration of his tales and is found, inebriated, together with the Muse. Even though Stella from the prologue now appears for the assignation and leaves in the company of a triumphant Lindorf, the audience presumes that Hoffmann will awaken in the confident realm of Poetry.

Salvatore Calomino

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):