Tales of Hoffmann - Farce, Fantasy or Social Commentary

Opera Colorado performed their second night of Tales of Hoffman last night at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. It was a full house prepared to wile away the hours with an epic fantasy by Jacques Offenbach. Although the opera was not finished during his lifetime, he had spent seven years toiling over every detail, with numerous notes and sketches still being discovered. The result is a broad range of interpretations available as to what Offenbach really imaged in this romantic romp through the loves of E.T.A. Hoffman - based on a real poet, who wanted to be a musician but fell to the muse of poetry instead

Tales of Hoffmann is considered Offenbach’s masterpiece. It certainly has several great moments for the vocalists to shine. Katherine Rohrer starts with an aria about the muse (the role she plays) and delights the audience with poignancy and power. Throughout the performance she has the unenviable role of always being “second place.” Yet, the passion and emotional strength she transmits to the audience is amazing. Pamela Armstrong, a local favorite, astounded the audience with each of her roles as love interest in the opera. As Olympia her aria was comical and vocally spectacular. The audience gasped at Pamela’s command of the upper stratosphere. As Antonia, Pamela was able to express both longing for a lost loved one and yet fervor for a love newly blooming. With crystalline voice and command of the character, Pamela Armstrong provided a strong centerpiece for Hoffmann’s affections. Julian Gavin as Hoffmann and Gaétan Laperrière as his foil have several great moments in the music. Julian captured both the power of a man obsessed with finding love and the broken anxiety when it fails to materialize. Gaétan moved from character to character bringing to light a variety of adversaries. Both men did respectably well but never quite captured the emotional impact of the women. Matthew DiBattista played the role of Offenbach, which then became a variety of other roles as the story progresses. Matthew’s sense of comic timing and vocal flexibility is perfect for his role – definitely brighten the opera to offset some of the darker themes.

The production is a collaboration of Opera Colorado, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Boston Lyric Opera allowing the lavish sets and costumes to truly present the fantastical from the mind of Offenbach. There is no disappointment. The sets and costumes by André Barbe are imaginative and striking. From the well-to-do Dickensian chorus who arrives before the curtain goes up, to the automaton Olympia are a blend of class and color, the sets and costumes play a role, much more than stage dressing, as functionally part of the story.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the production was the orchestra, although that is perhaps as much a fault of the orchestration as anything. The final act was not orchestrated by Offenbach and many of the earlier moments are disputed as to what should and should not be used. Even with that, Offenbach is not noted for his orchestration. Unfortunately, the orchestra felt flat nearly lifeless at times, while other moments seemed to struggle to overcome the vocalists (not the role of an opera orchestra).

The overall interpretation Opera Colorado opted for was a blending of the world of Offenbach, obsessed with every sketch for his opera and that of the story of Hoffman. The concept works as Offenbach plays a character in the various acts, often in the role of farcical clown. This doesn’t diminish the artistry of his music, but rather shows the obsessive side to his nature which is what Tales of Hoffmann is all about. The first act is a fantasy where the love interest is a robot - glasses that make “her” seem perfect in the flesh to Hoffmann. The two scientists in this act have comical roles suggesting the opera is a farce.

However, in the second act the situation is all too real as the love interest is dying too soon, much like Mimi in La bohème. There is a comic scene for Offenbach (who is Franz the deaf butler), but for the most part the act is dark. Act three returns to the fictional world where Hoffmann’s reflection is stolen all for the sake of love. Unlike the first act, this is played more serious and supernatural. The Epilogue brings us back to the beginning and perhaps provides social commentary. But there wasn’t a clear path to it, nor did it feel as if there was a clear decision as to what the commentary should be, or whether the opera really wanted to a fantasy or a farce. In the end, this production is an examination into the imagination of Offenbach – and perhaps Hoffmann – cloudy yet controversial.

There are two more performances: Friday, November 13, 2009 at 7:30 pm Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Visit Opera Colorado for more details and to purchase tickets.

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