Scene4 Magazine | San Francisco Opera's Tales of Hoffman | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | July 2013 !

Renate Stendhal

One of the most amusing and happily anticipated stories in Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann (apart from the Venice bordello, of course) is the encounter of the romantic poet Hoffmann with Olympia, the life-size doll who produces a song like a lark. Hoffmann is besotted by her looks and the admirably quiet self-possession she demonstrates sitting in her chair. He keeps spying on her, exuding his enchantment while the audience wonders: how life-like does she seem? Would we, too, fall for her and not notice her little flaw of being a robot?

In the staging by renowned French director Lauren Pelly, the audience is robbed of this pleasure. The stage (designed by his longtime collaborator Chantal Thomas) is a box of poorly painted blue-grey walls moving in on the action in claustrophobic tightness and only rarely opening up. There's a door here and there. For Olympia, there is a dim, blurry window in front of which Hoffmann (Matthew Polenzani) hovers at length while we see…nothing.


When the doll finally appears for her coming out party to society, only a group of lab technicians with note-blocks in hand are there to ogle her – but then they do what the libretto asks them to do: shed their lab coats and start waltzing. Olympia, last not least, makes a worthwhile appearance. Sung by the superbly gifted Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee, she sits dressed in a conspicuously metallic, robotic dress and goes up in the air every time her song goes up in high trills. It's not a new scenic idea, but Hye Jung Lee's acrobatics of voice and levitation are so well executed that they have a great comic effect, especially when she collapses into a heap and has to be cranked up again.  An effective crescendo is achieved by the sudden revelation of the crane-like swivel-machine that propels her across the stage and even swings her forward above the orchestra pit, bringing the house down to shrieks of delight. The lovely young Korean delivers a top-notch performance and in the end joins the ball on roller skates, a mad robot zipping through the crowd and literally running down poor Hoffmann and his delusions.


Apart from this great scene, audience frustration seemed the guiding concept for Pelly's mise en scène. The Act I tavern scene should be a rowdy fun-house, but Hoffmann and his drinking buddies seem gathered in some grey protestant church vestibule or community hall with rows of wardrobe stands. The "students" are a group of oddly middle-aged, unattractive burghers and not a single drink is served. When Hoffmann whips up the supposedly youthful frenzy with his cynical dwarf song "Kleinzack," the grey walls close him off completely.  American tenor Matthew  Polenzani, a versatile singer of good heft and wondrously lyric capacities, sings and acts the dwarf parody marvelously, but what for? A few heads of his fellow drinkers peep through 2 small doors to join his refrains, and that's it.

Next, the romantic, tubercular Antonia (Nathalie Dessay) is walled into an airless, utterly unerotic bedroom that seems to squash the ambitions of the aspiring singer right there in the bud, robbing her story of drama when she is forbidden – for her own good — to sing. In the end she is further diminished  by a huge video projection of a bizarre death-head — the ghost of her diva mother who is supposed to inflame the daughter to break out and sing herself to death, too. Instead of emotion, we get a huge distraction. Even the great Nathalie Dessay in this role can't overcome the absurdities of this staging and rise above her squashed character to move us.


As for Venice, forget Venice. The famous Barcarolle for the courtesan Giulietta and the young student Niklausse (poet Hoffmann's artistic Muse in disguise) ought to be the quintessence of seduction — the ouverture to a luscious "nuit d'amour." Two excellent mezzos (Angela Brower as Nicklausse and Irene Roberts as Giulietta) are at Pelly's disposition but he seats them as far as possible from each other in a stiff salon with distracting night dwellers between them. Nothing erotic can come of this anticlimactic duet. When things heat up a little, Giulietta's guests paw at each other on the salon floor so clumsily that Offenbach's lavish music gets lost in the embarrassment. Giulietta usually has the last laugh at Hoffmann, disappearing with his stolen shadow after her false promise of sex. But no ironic laughs in Pelly's version: Giulietta runs into Hoffmann's sword. Does anyone care?


An excellent cast without any exception is always the rare event that asks to be celebrated, especially with a conductor  like Patrick Fournillier who serves the genius of the score by highlighting Offenbach's enchanting melodies and orchestration. If only the director and the set designer had matched the level of musical perfection. 

Two years ago, I reviewed Santa Fe Opera's colorful, raving-mad Hoffmann  by Christopher Alden  (who already gave SF Opera a brilliant reading of the piece in 1996). His Santa Fe production  had all the darkness and romantic drama you could want for this strange hero and his doomed affairs.  No such luck here. A great cast doesn't make a great Hoffmann, alas. It would have taken some psychology to dive into the psyche of the drunken, desperate, eccentric, crazy-in-love poet who repeats his self-destructions with one woman after another. We don't get a clue here that Hoffmann is in fact defeated by his inner demons (embodied by his devilish rival Lindorf, well sung, but without any demonic aura by bass-baritone Christian van Horn). In the end, the poet can only be saved by his Muse, and gifted young mezzo Angela Brower, having shed the pants of Niklausse, sings her victory and  the "moral of the tale" with radiant lyrical tenderness and consolation.


The best thing I can say for Pelly is that he doesn't get in the way of his singers, but that's not the same as having an idea that would drive his great cast to the complete thrill they would have been under better guidance and in a more inspiring setting. Apparently the dead-grey walls that bury this Hoffmann were inspired by the paintings of Belgian surrealist Leon Spillaert.  Spillaert's paintings, if you google them, are neither grey nor dead, but intriguing, filled with mysterious and highly evocative light. This misunderstanding of a great painter was sold to the public as "a darker Hoffmann."  Don't make me laugh.  Turn off the lights and serve it in a cardboard box – and there you have your "darker Hoffmann."

Photos by Cory Weaver

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Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog

©2013 Renate Stendhal
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine



August 2013

Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media


August 2013

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