Monday, June 17, 2013
San Francisco Opera: Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann"
Even so, the production's most arresting image may belong to the third act. Playing Antonia's late mother, mezzo Margaret Mezzacappa is videoed in the orchestra pit, singing "Chére enfant!," and projected as a twenty-foot purple negative image on the back wall (projection designer Charles Carcopino). The same scene features Dr. Miracle, bass Christian Van Horn, riding the chandelier like an elevator.
Director/costume designer Laurent Pelly and set designer Chantal Thomas drew inspiration from Belgian symbolist artist Leon Spilliaert, employing a noirish pallette of blues, grays and blacks that evokes a dystopian mood similar to that of the film "Brazil." The performers prove just as captivating as their surroundings, beginning with tenor Matthew Polenzani, who demonstrates a fine ability to go from the poet's spinto rages to his lirico raptures. His most touching moments are his description of the sleeping Olympia and his passionate plea to Giulietta, "O Dieu! de quelle ivresse."
Van Horn makes the most of his four devils, particularly as he conducts the cruel killing-by-song of Antonia, and moves about the stage with the deft grace of a phantom. He has his chance to "shine" in the Diamond Aria, a lovely piece set over matching low strings. Tenor Steven Cole makes an entire separate genre out of his three wacky-servant roles, especially in Frantz's self-insulting "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre." Tenor Thomas Glenn matches the dank laboratory setting with a hilarious Frankensteinian version of the mad inventor Spalanzani (with plentiful help from makeup designer Gerd Mairandres). The stage swap of mezzo Angela Brower and her double, chorus regular Kathleen Bayler, was convincing enough to create a little confusion about who, exactly, was playing The Muse/Nicklausse, but it was certainly Brower who delivered the final, poignant plea to Hoffmann to use his heartbreak to rekindle his creative flame ("Des cendres de ton coeur"). Sung beautifully, and words that any writer would fall for.
Through July 6, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340. 415/864-3330. www/sfopera.com. See the video trailer.
Images: Natalie Dessay (Antonia) and James Creswell (Crespel). Hye Jung Lee (Olympia) and Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann). The Act III set. Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at amazon.com.