09 Jun 2013
Les Contes d’Hoffmann in San Francisco
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
No surprises here, it was the Laurent Pelly production that originated in 2005 on a small stage in Lausanne before moving to Lyon’s Opéra Nouvel. Just now its seemingly countless animate components have been transformed to a new production of the scope to inhabit Barcelona’s Liceu and San Francisco’s War Memorial. And it is still a living organism with its own intelligence. Maybe it is even smarter than Offenbach.
Not that Offenbach has not gotten a lot smarter over the years, subject to the scrutiny of researchers, scholars, editors, not to mention those who have finished, fixed and improved the mess that Offenbach left behind. Finally stage directors have the task of actually putting it on the stage in some fashion they think is coherent. And the fun continues.
Strange to say this potentially magnificent work has come to the War Memorial stage in but two earlier incarnations, a 1944 version repeated in 1945 and 1949, and a 1987 version directed by Lotfi Mansouri. Christopher Alden directed a 1996 version that was mounted in the Civic Auditorium because the War Memorial was closed for earthquake repairs. This production was based on the artistically correct, read de rigueur Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck edition as rendered in a 1993 production at Long Beach Opera directed by David Alden.
The Kaye-Keck edition is of course the basis for the 2005 Pelly production, with Lausanne and Lyon’s own particular blend of non-Offenbach recitatives and dialogues. Needless to say seven years later Laurent Pelly has rethought it a bit for Barcelona, and now it is further adapted for San Francisco. You get the idea. We could get lost in detail.
Pelly’s production is magnificent, making E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short horror stories into a dream fantasy where anything real becomes surreal, where anything physical is ephemeral. There is no time because there is no place. Images appear and disappear without a logic, as stream-of-unconscious.
Pelly’s conceit is based on the Olympia episode, on Spalanzani’s mechanics where magic dissolves into stagecraft when Olympia is revealed as a manipulation of three stagehands. We then become conscious that the continuous flow of images is effected by the most basic level of stage mechanics — men pushing scenery and men pulling ropes. And we become even more amazed by the intelligence behind the when and how of it all.
Steven Cole as Cochenille, Hye Jung Lee as Olympia and Thomas Glenn as Spalanzani
It is a diabolical staging in an opera where there is nothing but diabolical manipulation of, uhm, nothing. Something like quantum mechanics maybe.
There is the glue that holds all this together, and that is mere Offenbach, the minor genius who was a major genius, who made trivial musical magic into powerful emotional statements. Conductor Patrick Fournillier realized this Offenbach utilizing the ample voice of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, exploiting thought rather than sentiment by driving fast tempos, emotion rather than atmosphere by probing depth of tone — assignments this formidable orchestra relished. The pit had a big job indeed. It had to supply the colors, abstract and real, that the essentially dark monotone set left undefined. It succeeded.
And there is the lubrication allowing the Pelly mechanics to flow. This of course would be the voices of the actors. American tenor Matthew Polenzani had the daunting task of making us feel the pain of the destruction of illusion. It is a lot of singing, and he made it to the end with apparent ease. Mr. Polenzani is a light lyric tenor, a voice that does not boast the strain that makes a large-scale lyric tenor exciting. Though a beautifully acted performance, and in fact a beautifully sung performance it did not propel us to confusion, disillusion and exhaustion, the fulfillment of Hoffmann’s love.
Matthew Polenzani is a star, not to forget Laurent Pelly, so it is inexplicable why San Francisco Opera felt it needed an additional star to illustrate its aspiration to be a big-time opera company. Soprano Natalie Dessay sang a waif-like Antonia, the only one of the heroines this estimable artist can still negotiate. She did deliver vocally with sure, proven technique. Though if there are to be three sopranos for the opera, one would surely prefer a full lyric for this role. Mme. Dessay did give us the very real pleasures of a diva presence and crystal clear French.
Irene Roberts as Giulietta
There is great pleasure to be had in hearing young singers with beautiful, well-used voices. Bass Christian Van Horn, last fall’s Angelotti in Tosca, almost held his own in fulfilling the star quality needed for the four villains. Soprano Hye Jung Lee of Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist program was adequate as Olympia. Giulietta was Irene Roberts who was Fresno Opera’s Carmen. Angela Brower, a member of the Bavarian State Opera ensemble disappointed as Nicklausse, lacking the requisite richness of voice for this trouser role and necessary presence to hold the stage for such an extended period of time.
Casting of the myriad of additional roles ranged from star turns, like the casting of Steven Cole as the four servants, to the pallid Spalanzani of Thomas Glenn and lackluster Crespel of James Creswell. The Adlers did their usual fine service in other roles, especially Hadleigh Adams as Schlemil.
The Pelly production needed more powerful presences all around to liberate our minds and hearts from its brilliant stage mechanics and allow its devilish design to take flight. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra alone could not accomplish this. It could have been done.
Cast and production information:
Hoffmann: Matthew Polenzani; The Muse/Nicklausse: Angela Brower; Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf: Christian Van Horn; Antonia: Natalie Dessay; Olympia: Hye Jung Lee; Giulietta: Irene Roberts; Stella: Jacqueline Piccolino; Frantz, Andrès, Cochenille, Pittichinaccio: Steven Cole; Nathanaël: Matthew Grills; Spalanzani: Thomas Glenn; Crespel: James Creswell; Hermann: Joo Won Kang; Luther, Schlemil: Hadleigh Adams. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Patrick Fournillier. Director: Laurent Pelly; Set Design: Chantal Thomas; Costumes: Laurent Pelly; Lighting Design: Joël Adam. Production photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera. War Memorial Opera House, June 5, 2013.