Tales of Hoffmann (2008)

In 2005, I was on my way to graduating from college. The last thing I had to do was complete an internship somewhere in the field of Stage Management. I returned to my hometown of Baltimore and luckily got an internship at the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company as a production assistant. It was an eye-opening experience because I had never really worked in opera. Everything was bigger than anything I had done before. The second of two shows I ended up working on was a show called Tales of Hoffmann. It is a French opera about a German poet. In pre-production, I was given the task of researching the show. This is called dramaturgy and it is something often done by big enough companies so they can know the ins and outs of a show before mounting their own version. Basically, I was providing as much information as possible so that the director could connect with the source material. That may have been one of my favorite weeks as it was actually my job to read German fantasy and write down my thoughts on it. I am not sure that my research came to anything but I will likely never forget it.

Spoiler Warning: Since I am going to be reviewing an opera for the first time, I have decided that I am not going light on spoilers. In opera, you often know the story before you attend. Knowing the end of the journey does not detract from the joy of it with opera. At least, that’s my opinion. The beautiful music and the staging are the main points of actually watching an opera.

As a side note, I was going to watch the 1951 film version of this show but I could not obtain it in time because I pussyfooted around. So instead, I picked the first professional-looking production I could find on YouTube with English subtitles. That means instead of two hours, I was up against a show that was closer to three hours. That’s perfectly fine with me. The music of the opera was made by Jacques Offenbach who was terrified because he had a vision of his own death. He felt that he would die before its completion and he was correct as he died with the manuscript in his hand four months before it opened. This matched the dark subject matter of the opera itself but he did not write it. Instead, the opera’s libretto (or lyrics and story) were written by Jules Barbier based on three tales by ETA Hoffmann. Barbier had already written the opera version of Hamlet so he was a great pick to adapt a non-musical author into a more epic artform. His dark prose and poetry mixed well with Offenbach’s dark yet lively music.

For the overarching story of the opera follows.  Hoffmann is a writer and the Muse wants to get her claws fully into him so she can get him to focus solely on writing and so she poses as his best friend. In the meantime, Hoffmann is to get together with Stella, a prima donna and is waiting for her at a tavern. The villain, Lindorf, convinces Hoffmann to tell stories while he waits. After telling the story of a dwarf named Kleinzach, Lindorf coaxes him to tell stories of past loves. He first tells the story of how he fell in love with a girl named Olympia, not realizing that she was a mechanical doll. Second, he tells the story of how he fell in love with Antonia, the daughter of an opera singer who has a condition where she will die if she sings. Third, he tells the story of how he fell in love with Giulietta, a courtesan who is planning to try to steal Hoffmann’s reflection. In the end, a now drunk Hoffmann forswears all women, realizing how love has done him wrong over and over. The Muse reveals herself and swears her love for Hoffmann and he gives himself to her service. Stella leaves the tavern with Lindorf.

As you can see from my quick rundown, the story is beautifully weird and dark. One of the ideas of the show is that the villain of each story and Lindorf are all incarnations of the same nemesis. In all of his incarnations, this nemesis seeks to take Hoffmann’s love away from him. The other idea is that all three women (Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta) are all aspects of Stella.  Since Stella is a prima donna (opera superstar) she is a courtesan, singer, and a prop all in one. What I find interesting about all of this is that Hoffmann does not really win. He loses three loves and forgoes his chance at the fourth. He never sees that he lost previously because he was sabotaged.  Also, the man who sabotages him always completely gets away with it. While Hoffmann decides to quit in order to break the cycle, finding a way to truly defeat Nemesis would be the traditional approach to the story. Speaking of the nemesis, he is a pure villain who never gets his comeuppance. I find that absolutely amazing and kind of refreshing. Even when the hero is a bit of a dope, you still expect him or her to win but not in this case. Well, he does decide to focus on his writing so he does not exactly lose either.

As for the production I watched, the orchestra did a fantastic job and really captured the craziness Offenbach composed.  While the subject matter can be dark and weird, there is also a lot of sweetness to the music. The performers clearly put everything they had into this production. Marc Laho is lovably goofy as Hoffmann and I found myself alternately really rooting for him and pitying him. Stella Doufexis has such a beautifully sweet voice as The Muse posing as Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse and she has such expressive eyes. The baritone of Nicolas Cavallier is perfect for the many incarnations of Nemesis as he makes it clear that he is a villain. He also does a really good job of showing how much he enjoys being a villain and his evil laugh was especially good. The three women who play the past loves are each fun in their own way. The set is rather minimalist but I loved the way it shifted around to fit the needs of the scene.  It made everything flow a little better between each of the five acts.  I was also thankful for the nude bodysuits rather than actual nudity (it can be surprisingly cold on stage). I definitely would recommend this particular production but I would encourage you to go out and find a production to see live if you can.

 

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4 Responses to “Tales of Hoffmann (2008)”

  1. Silvia Writes Says:

    Interesting, all behind the scenes details. I’ve never attended opera — a regret, but not too late. Started reading Bel Canto some time back, had to stop for various reasons but look forward to finishing it. Quite a mesmerizing and perhaps different look at opera.

    Like

    • Wolf of Words Says:

      I’ll have to look into that. My experience with opera is fairly limited but I do love the style. Everything’s just so big. Opera is actually pretty accessible these days as the subtitles are displayed on an LED screen or actually on the screen in recordings.

      Like

  2. Colette B Says:

    I’m not usually a fan of opera, but your writing on this one gives it an intriguing appeal – it also reminds me, although a different story, of an art film i saw a few years ago about the tale of Descartes Daughter, an automaton. I’ll have to set aside time one day to take a look.

    Like

    • Wolf of Words Says:

      Automatons are incredibly fascinating especially long before robots were a thing. In the story, he literally falls in love with a wind-up doll while everybody snickers at him. The stories of opera are usually pretty interesting even if one does not like the music or the performance.

      Liked by 1 person

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