The following review is based on the March 30th performance when Christian Van Horn played The Four Villains in place of the indisposed Nicolas Testé.
Sometimes what we want is perhaps not in line with the greater good of humanity, let alone ourselves. This Kantian categorical imperative for the sake of our best selves is often lost on us in the moment, when we are in the thrall of our own desires, righteously motivated to drink in the chalice of personal fulfillment. But, what if the greatest gift we can be given is not to get our wish for happiness satiated, but to be denied it?
This is the ultimate moral that reveals itself in Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” (with libretto by Jules Barbier and inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s three short stories) when its title character and poet is provided an illuminating restitution for his failure to find love in three recounted cases (four if we include Stella, who is supposedly the embodiment of the three). In words bequeathed by The Muse of Poetry, Hoffmann’s guardian angel of sorts, it was all part of life’s plan for the bard, allowing for his artistic aptitude to bloom in the wake of his suffering. It is a realization that transforms our conscious understanding, especially when The Muse of Poetry reveals to Hoffmann that “we find greatness through love, even more when we weep.”
Conducted with great poise by Plácido Domingo (note: Grant Gershon will be conducting the April 6th performance) and directed by his wife Marta Domingo, “The Tales of Hoffmann” is one of LA Opera’s most ambitious stage productions in recent memory. Plácido, who, having starred in innumerable shows himself, is certainly a performer’s conductor, who intelligently defers to his cast, giving them ample freedom to play up to their potential. Marta, who has conceived this rendition of the opera, has astutely swapped Acts Two and Three with one another, enabling a more stirring emotional crescendo to precede the denouement offered in the Epilogue.
Scheduled to play at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on select dates through April 15th, the show, in the span of three acts (in addition to a Prologue and Epilogue) and five glorious sets, unanimously succeeds at an inordinately high level. The pacing is remarkably smooth – a difficult feat given its three-and-a-half-hour runtime — and the performances are meticulously crafted and conveyed with compelling resonance.
Headlining the extraordinary cast in this memorable French opera is Italian veteran Vittorio Grigòlo as Hoffmann, who, by the end of his performance, is deservingly exhausted, having committed his entire being to a persona that encounters one heartbreaking tribulation after another. Grigòlo’s tenor voice is comfortingly smooth, but relentlessly powerful, as he bares his soul through his lungs where arrows of passion emanate from, as he stands ever the more tippy-toed with each successively surging note.
And, like his production peers, Grigòlo has an uncanny knack for sustaining his character’s body language and expressions while singing. One example occurs in the Prologue when Hoffmann is deliriously inebriated, stumbling around, singing about the story of “Kleinzach,” a dismal character whose knees “click clack,” neck “crick cracks,” and coattails “flick flack.” Crouched, and moving forward with his knees bent and eyes hilariously bulging out, Grigòlo wins over the audience before the crux of the story has even begun.
The Four Villains throughout the opera embody the collective voice of unmitigated evil, basking in a similar diabolical persuasion. They include the suave Lindorf in the Prologue and Epilogue, mad-scientist Coppélius in Act One, soul-reaper Dapertutto in Act Two and the wicked Dr. Miracle in Act Three. Christian Van Horn, who had played the role of The Four Villains with the San Francisco and Bavarian State Opera, was released from rehearsals by the Dallas Opera to be a last-minute substitution for Nicolas Testé.
Van Horn, whose bass-baritone voice is invigoratingly potent, pulls off such an incredible performance that one could never guess he was replacing someone else. Van Horn’s Lindorf has an enigmatically quiet and dastardly charisma about him; his Coppélius is zany, fun, and fiendishly whimsical; his Dapertutto gives a rousing speech about how Giulietta (Kate Aldrich) will do anything for the tremendous diamond that he holds in his possession; and his Dr. Miracle is the most heinous – disappearing and reappearing like a ghostly maestro of temptation and destruction (accentuated by the climactic visual of shattering a violin over his leg).
So Young Park, who has become an LA Opera favorite, portrays the mechanical Olympia in Act One, blank facial expression and all, who waddles, and can implode at any moment (signified by her uproarious undulation of high notes). Park plays the part perfectly as the oblivious doll, demonstrating a mastery of not only body control but her non-verbal cues, which are just as awe-striking as her vocal flourishes.
Grigòlo is also magnificent in Act One, declaring his character’s abiding love in droll fashion when he extends his “sweet declaration of love, two hearts as one forevermore.” Not to mention, Rodell Rosel is superbly fascinating to watch as Spalanzani, inventor and “father” of Olympia, who attempts to use her beauty for hopeful gain. Rosel’s panache and comic timing are exemplary, as is his character’s perseverance to continue “winding up” Olympia despite inevitable signs to the contrary.
Kate Aldrich plays the venal courtesan and seductress, Giulietta, in Act Two, on a Venetian palazzo set – one of many times when the set evokes an audible appreciation from the audience (credit goes to Scenery/Costume designer Giovanni Agostinucci and Lighting Designer Alan Burrett). Seductively sauntering across a stage that includes beautiful blue hues, royal columns, a looming planet in the sky, and a gondola, Aldrich demonstrates a scorching stage presence as the fiery siren who bluntly admits that she prefers power and riches over love, to Hoffmann’s chagrin, who asks if he can “hate her but still love her.” Aldrich’s mezzo-soprano voice is suited perfectly for the role, giving Giulietta a darkened timbre that hooks into Hoffmann’s heart just long enough so he loses his reflection (to be given as a prize to villain Dapertutto in exchange for the massive diamond).
Diana Damrau, who also inhabits the role of Stella, particularly shines as the innocent Antonia in Act Three. Antonia is the daughter of the earnestly well-intentioned Crespel (Nicholas Brownlee) and an operatic mother, now deceased, who mysteriously died, possibly from over-singing. The stakes are seemingly at their highest here, because the audience doesn’t want to see Antonia, who loves to sing, suffer the same fate as her mother did (played by Sharmay Musacchio). Nevertheless, Antonia is manipulated against her will, who is “implored” by Dr. Miracle and the conjured spirit of her mother, to sing to her heart’s discontent. Damrau, whose soprano voice cries out to all four levels of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and Grigòlo, set the tone of Act Three by singing as if it is their characters’ last chance at love. When the scene ends tragically, the emotional impact reverberates profoundly.
Christophe Mortagne ingeniously portrays The Four Servants (Andrés, Cochenille, Pitichinaccio, and Frantz), but it is his interpretations of the robotic, Tin Man-esque Cochenille in Act One and the half-deaf Frantz in Act Three that won’t be forgotten any time soon. Mortagne’s Cochenille is terrifically charming in how he not only moves gingerly, but sings in a sublime staccato rhythm. Moreover, when Olympia is revealed to be a screws-and-bolts creation at the close of Act One, Mortagne hysterically walks his Cochenille repeatedly and distressingly into a wall while the curtain is descending.
In contrast, Frantz is a lovable elderly servant who insists he can hear, funnily misconstruing words and phrases. He’s also had dreams of becoming a singer and dancer (“If only I had training”), vocalizing humorously out of tune and pitch, and entertainingly putting his inflexible body in precarious positions. Mortagne is so good at pretending to be bad here, and doing it in such a delightful manner, that even Domingo can’t help but look up from his orchestra to crack a few smiles.
Last but not least is mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, who as both The Muse of Poetry and as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s best friend and The Muse in disguise, is the voice of reason throughout the opera. As Nicklausse, Lindsey accompanies Grigòlo’s Hoffmann in Acts One through Three, incorporating a robust bass in her cadence. She tries to instill common sense in the poet, asking him to question his misplaced desires, especially for the fake Olympia (Lindsey does an applause-worthy impression of her) and the corrupt Giulietta. Of course, Hoffmann doesn’t listen, but Nicklausse gives it his best shot; and, suffice it to say, Lindsey is wonderfully adept at communicating logic to Hoffmann, taking the stage with a guitar (Act One) and violin (Act Three) to foreshadow how the unfolding of events will “bind to his sorrows.”
Ultimately, when the loves of his life painfully elude Hoffmann, The Muse – in all of her celestial elegance and eloquence – looks down like a mother at the prostrate poet, imparting an aphorism for the ages that invokes the grandest of perspectives. It is revelatory of the notion that everything happens for a reason and that strength can emerge from sadness, and triumph from tragedy. For Hoffmann, his destiny wasn’t to love for too long, but to feel the sting of its pull, so that he could carry out his truest purpose in life as a distinguished lyrist. It is an insightful thought – that life’s singular moments add up to a sum that is greater than its parts.
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