Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) is perhaps best known for his “cancan” music, the “galop infernal” from Orphée aux enfers (1858). But his most popular operettas (such as La Belle Hélène, La Vie parisienne, and La Périchole) are lyrical gems that satirized contemporary Parisian society under the Second Empire, much as Gilbert and Sullivan would do a few years later in Victorian England. In fact, Gilbert and Sullivan’s first extant operetta, the one-act Trial by Jury, was commissioned by Richard D’Oyly Carte to accompany performances of Offenbach’s La Périchole.
While Offenbach enjoyed tremendous popularity in France and abroad with these operettas, today it is probably Les Contes d’Hoffmann, his only opera, which is considered his masterwork. Left unfinished at his death (at the time, it was in rehearsals), it can appear in many different incarnations. The current production by San Francisco Opera is based on the integral edition of the opera by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck.
The opera is based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, from whence come both The Nutcracker and Coppélia. It follows a fictionalized Hoffmann who recounts the stories of his three great loves (Olympia, Antonia, Giuletta) as he awaits the arrival of a fourth, Stella. Originally, Natalie Dessay was to sing all four soprano roles, but instead she sings only that of Antonia. Hye Jung Lee takes on Olympia, Irene Roberts sings Giuletta, and Jacqueline Piccolino takes on Stella. Rounding out the cast is Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann, Angela Brower as The Muse/Nicklausse, Christian Van Horn as the devil in various guises, and Thomas Glenn as Spalanzani.
Although not one of the standard war horses, this opera would be good for a newbie because of its fantastical elements and approachable music. In Act I especially you can see the influence of Offenbach’s years of operetta, notably with “Glou! Glou! Glou!” and “Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach” (aka “The Legend of Kleinzach”).
Act II, which focuses on the life-like doll, Olympia, is especially appealing in this production (but I won’t ruin the surprise for anyone that might want to see it). Hye Jung Lee, who we last saw as the brilliant Madame Mao in Nixon in China, was clearly an audience favorite, and deservedly so, as she was absolutely delightful singing “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” as the doll. As anyone who follows this blog religiously knows, I love a mechanical doll.
Act III, the story of Antonia, is less showy musically, although there is a beautiful violin solo. While the plot here is as weak as Antonia (If she sings, she’ll die!), I thought that Natalie Dessay sounded superb on these tender numbers. Also, Steven Cole did a great job as Frantz, the hard-of-hearing butler who serves as comic relief—one of four secondary roles he brought to life. Matthew Polenzani and Christian Van Horn, who were strong throughout, came off particularly well in this act.
Act IV begins with the most famous song in the opera, a barcarolle (gondolier’s song) called “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour.” While Irene Roberts and Angela Brower sang beautifully, the set did them no service, as I found it completely distracting. In fact, although this act has a few key numbers, I don’t think it came off very well overall and seemed a let-down after the first three. I’m not sure why, as the basic story (the stealing of Hoffmann’s soul by a heartless courtesan in exchange for a diamond) should work. I think perhaps the direction made it hard to follow the intricacies of the plot or understand the motivations for the actions of the various characters. The epilogue is mostly notable for the incredibly quick costume change as Nicklausse once again becomes The Muse.
On a final note, I was happy to be able to understand most of the French in this production. Of course, Natalie Dessay is French (Lyon represent!), but, after my experience with Carmen, it was nice to see most of the cast come up to scratch as well. Special props to Thomas Glenn, I don’t know if it’s your Canadian origins or what, but bless you. I was also happy to see that the repeated mentions of “the Jew” in the sung lyrics of Act II were translated as “the banker” in the supertitles, although a number of great plays on words in the spoken text (such as “la physique” meaning both “physics” and “body/figure”) were lost to the non-French speakers in the audience.
Les Contes d’Hoffmann is at the War Memorial Opera House through July 6. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on June 14 and July 6, 7:30 p.m. on June 20, June 27 and July 3, and 2 p.m. on June 23 and June 30.