Monday, June 17, 2013

San Francisco Opera: Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann"

SFO's new co-production with Barcelona Gran Teatre del Liceu and L'Opéra National de Lyon often seems more like Cirque de Soleil, what with its astounding bag of stage effects and gymnastics. And if you guessed that this has something to do with Olympia the singing robot, you're dead-on. Soprano Hye Jung Lee makes her entrance in a metallic dress, seemingly hovering inches above the stage. As it turns out, she is strapped into the business end of a crane, operated by three stage hands in the darkness upstage. Lee proceeds to perform Olympia's coloratura showpiece, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille," while in flight, finishing with a full 360 and singing her finale while dangling over the orchestra pit. As if this isn't enough, she spends the subsequent scene rollerblading, delivering a neat cross-check on her would-be lover 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."

Soprano Natalie Dessay casts her particular brand of enchantment over the musically doomed Antonia, excelling in disarmingly simple moments: stolen passages of nostalgic song in her bedroom ("Elle a fui, la tourterelle"), or a shared love song with Hoffmann, "C'est une chanson d'amour," sung on a breeze of a conversation. At the end, she expires with a silken thread of tone, scattering songsheets across her bed.

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.

Ian Robertson's chorus is madly energetic, particularly the men of the tavern, who swarm around their alpha-male poet like bees around a queen, and the slightly robotic mob of lab-coated scientists who come to witness Olympia's unveiling. The Act IV furnishings move about Giulietta's Venetian digs exactly like gondolas, a beautifully witty touch, and the theft of Hoffmann's reflection is accomplished with a video monitor that gives a live simulcast of the devil Dapertutto while blocking out Hoffmann, who stands directly beside him on stage. Patrick Fournillier's orchestra performed with a rigorous muscularity, although I admit I was a bit too distracted by all the visuals to pay the attention they deserved.

Through July 6, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340. 415/864-3330. www/ 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

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