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You Can’t Always Get What You Want

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
06/05/2013 -  and June 11, 14, 20, 23, 27, 30, July 3*, 6, 2013
Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann), Natalie Dessay (Antonia), Angela Brower (La Muse, Nicklausse), Hye Jung Lee (Olympia), Irene Roberts (Giulietta), Jacqueline Piccolino (Stella), Christian van Horn (Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, Dapertutto), Steven Cole (Andrès, Cochenille, Pitichinaccio, Frantz), Thomas Glenn (Spalanzani), Margaret Mezzacappa (La mère d’Antonia), James Creswell (Crespel), Hadleigh Adams (Luther, Schlemil), Matthew Grills (Nathanaël), Joo Wan Kang (Hermann)
San Francisco Opera Chorus, Ian Robertson (chorus master), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Patrick Fournillier (conductor)
Laurent Pelly (director, costume designer), Chantal Thomas (set designer), Joël Adam (lighting designer), Charles Carcopino (projection designer), Christian Räth (associate director)

M. Polenzani, N. Dessay (© Cory Weaver)

The San Francisco Opera’s five-star presentation of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, a co-production with L’Opéra National de Lyon and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, is a vastly entertaining rendition despite its thematic tragedy. With its captivating though somewhat demented characters, it is a superior production employing multiple strategic devices with conjoined opposites: plot device, skillful use of character typing, singing versus spoken dialogue, and the inevitable struggle between good and evil.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani, known as a talented Mozart interpreter, proves versatile as he nimbly shifts to French opera genre and exposes his deep engagement with Hoffmann. Mr. Polenzani’s voice proves solidly rich with unforced stamina throughout this challenging 3-1/2 hour, five-act marathon. Nearly as crucial, he can act. His only vulnerability is the risk of being overshadowed by the stellar lyric coloratura soprano, Natalie Dessay.

He need not worry. Miss Dessay, every bit the professional, retains her compelling stage presence and yet stays subordinate to the protagonist. Her Antonia is fresh and unforced, while she focuses her role as an essential integral part of a unified production effort. The famous voice is more expressive than ever. Ms. Dessay originally intended to sing all of the four inamorata roles but ultimately concentrated upon Antonia. A wise decision – as talented an artist as she is, portraying all four characters demands very different timbres and usually results in at least one compromised performance among these characters.

Ultimately, the unique voice of coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee is perfectly suited for Olympia. Ms. Lee’s exuberant version includes a sprightly delivery of "Les oiseaux dans la charmille," with a few high F’s thrown in for ornamentation. Witty stage effects add to the entertainment.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower’s company debut as Hoffmann’s muse (Nicklausse) is deservedly auspicious. Her robust but mellifluous singing, impeccable diction, and confident stage presence make an authoritative Nicklausse. A bit more study of dramatic expression will polish her skills nicely.

Performing and apparently glorying in all four villain roles is bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. He projects utterly gleeful evil with a voice of turpentine.

Soprano and Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino’s debut as the omnipresent Stella is a pleasant introduction to her luscious, fluid voice. Mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, yet another company debutante, possesses a gorgeously tempered instrument as the seductive Giulietta. Spiel tenor Steven Cole, cast in the four “grotesque” roles, is especially droll as Frantz, tossing off a stellar aria while acting the buffoon. Tenor Thomas Glenn crafts an appropriately nutty scientist as Spalanzani.

Ian Robertson’s chorus never disappoints. Nice that in this production the chorus has an opportunity to do a little acting of its own, providing commentary as Hoffmann emotes into his beer.

Despite a few small disappointments from the orchestra pit, Offenbach’s luscious score was well executed. The spirited tempo of the much-loved "Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour," was incompatible with the languor of romance intended to set the introduction to Act IV. Perfunctory delivery conveys little emotion, and certainly not the intended mood of blissful amour. Additionally, Maestro Fournillier had a bit of difficulty synchronizing orchestral tempo to Ms. Dessay’s tender aria, "Elle a fui la tourterelle." These minor quibbles were more than offset by the gorgeous violin solo and an excellent brass section.

The staging, casting and costumes are intended to unify a rather fragmented libretto, with successful results. Although costuming is unremarkable (with the exception of Olympia’s icy-silver gown with matching 22-button gloves), Chantal Thomas’ sets are an essential factor in overcoming what other many versions fail to do. Backgrounds and spare, muted colors succeed in achieving the desired effect. (Tangentially, the libretto’s inclusion of Prologue and Epilogue framing the three scenarios also are a significant contribution to the production’s gestalt.)

Special effects are innovative, clever, and in the case of Act II, downright camp. The Act III soulful visage of Antonia’s mother, conveyed via screen projection and sung offstage by mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, another company debutante, is genius. Lighting supports without being intrusive.

A fresh, witty, and stylish Hoffmann, it is undoubtedly one of the finest of so many extant versions. (The edition used is by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck for Schott Music in a version from dramturg Agathe Mélinand.) This offering is one of the best Hoffmann productions to date with its abundant use of grand theatricality, wit and originality.

Claudia K. Nichols



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