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Hoffmann's Sirens

TALES384GiuliettaSM.jpgOn August 7, 2011, The Dresser went to see Wolf Trap's impressive production of The Tales of Hoffmann because she is following the career of mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti who sung the role of the Venetian courtesan Giulietta. Gigliotti was both powerful and sexy as the woman who breaks Hoffmann (tenor Nathaniel Peake) from his path of bad choices in love.

While accompanied by Nicklausse, Hoffmann's muse-in-disguise (mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin), the poet recounts to a bar crowd his pursuit of three women while trying to decide whether to reunite with his former lover, the opera diva Stella (soprano Claudia Rosenthal). First there is Olympia (soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine) who turns out to be a wind-up doll. Next, there is the gravely ill singer Antonia (dramatic soprano Marcy Stonikas). Finally, there is Giulietta (mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti) who steals his reflected image. This narrative without significant psychological insight (e.g. why is Hoffmann so addicted to love and, therefore, why should the audience care about him?) is not exactly what the Dresser would call a compelling story for a 21st century woman--or man.

This version of Jacques Offenbach's last opera with a libretto in French by Jules Barbier was a special production. Director Dan Rigazzi used the libretto painstakingly restored by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck. The Kaye-Keck version is believed to honor Offenbach's original intentions. What it does is restore a number of lost scenes and musical numbers. Certainly, the Dresser is no expert on such musical scholarship and not a huge fan of 19th century opera but she finds opening up an old work for further scrutiny interesting. That said, the Dresser thought the Prologue and Act I eye-glazingly long. While the drinking music for these two sections is listenable and the singing by Nathaniel Peake is impressive, the Dresser wanted less repetition and quicker access to Hoffmann's first love, the spectacular but not flesh-and-bone Olympia. TALES604OlympiaSM.jpg

Perhaps the Dresser's inability to more fully enjoy the Prologue and the lead into Act I is that she found the pronunciation of the French text rather muddy and therefore distracting. This was made more apparent by Peake's ability to more carefully emphasize the consonants, which is apparently hard to do in French. However, once Olympia appeared on stage, the Dresser ceased to be annoyed about the delivery of language. Why? Because the action, the visuals, and the music became more interesting.

From Coppélius (bass-baritone Craig Irvin), one of Olympia's creators, Hoffmann acquires magic glasses that make Olympia seem human. Mattie Ullrich's costume for Olympia is a confection of visual pleasure, marrying old with new fashion. Olympia wears an elegant modern sheath but the dress has a cloud of crinoline attached on either side of her hips. Like some exotic bird, Olympia preens by fluffing the crinoline. Even Olympia's disheveled nest of blond hair oddly fascinated the Dresser. Add this to Guarrine's notable coloratura clarity in "The Doll's Song" and the Dresser was utterly hooked. Yes, the Dresser, even without the magic glasses, could truly empathize with Hoffman who immediately fell in love with a doll who danced like she was wearing those devil-possessed red shoes.

Moreover, the Dresser really perked up when Coppélius got angry that Spalanzani (tenor Edward Mout),his partner in creating Olympia, tried to buy him out with a bad check. Oh, the Dresser thought incorrectly, here is where the opera connects with today's world that is filled with financial fraud. However, that reaction had no time to settle into disappointment because the next scene revealed Coppélius carrying Olympia's dismantled legs and arms into the party where Hoffmann is still sprawled on the floor trying to recover from his dance with the out-of-control robot. And, by the way, Olympia's story is connected to Coppélia, the comic ballet with choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon and music by Léo Delibes. This is the ballet the Dresser has special affection for since her son was born on the night she held tickets for this favorite work of ballet theater.

TALES670AntoniaSM.jpgAct II brought more visual enchantment and more interesting music. The set transformed from walls to showcases. In one of these showcases hung light-catching violins. This was the new home of Hoffmann's second love Antonia. It seems that Antonia's father Crespel (bass Kenneth Kellogg) had moved Antonia to a new place to hide her from Hoffmann. Crespel says she is too sick to sing (the Dresser guesses she has tuberculosis) but, in addition, the audience gets the idea from all the emphasis on Antonia's midsection that she is pregnant. Here the story escapes from male emphasis to allow Antonia to meditate on whether she will defy first her father and then Hoffman about her career as a singer. Egging her on is the diabolical Dr. Miracle played by the same bass-baritone Craig Irvin who was Coppélius in Act I. Director Rigazzi casts Antonia as a 19th century diva--she is a large woman with powerful lungs (despite her illness) who eventually succumbs in a swoon to her disease.

Act III brought the musical reward of Offfenbach's well known love song the "Barcarole," which in this production was enhanced by the intertwining voices of the two mezzo-sopranos Catherine Martin as Nicklausse and Eve Gigliotti as Giulietta. The richness of their voices was enough to make the Dresser breathe deeply in total surrender. The complication of this love story is that Giulietta is surrounded by men--her scheming partner Dapertutto (another evil role for Craig Irvin), Giulietta's servant Pitichinaccio (Kenneth Kellogg), and her customer Peter Schlémil (Edward Mount). Giulietta seduces Hoffmann and tells him to get the key to her room from Schlémil. Dissed, Schlémil challenges Hoffman to a dual that ends in Schlémil's death. Nicklausse pleads with Hoffmann to leave Venice before the police arrest him, but he says he will never leave Giulietta. However, Giulietta convinces Hoffman to surrender his reflection and he blacks out. When he awakes he knows he has been had so he goes after Giulietta with a knife only to mortally wound Pitichinaccio, who Giulietta gathers to her breast as her one true love.

TALES047MuseSM.jpgThe epilogue shows Stella spurning the drunken Hoffmann, but this allows the poet's muse to cast off her disguise as Nicklausse and affirm herself as the poet's one true love--a victory for poetry the Dresser notes with glee. The Dresser also notes that the costume and hair designers did a good job in making Muse-Nicklausse an androgynous figure wearing high-heeled boots, a flowing trench coat, and long blond tresses.

If the Dresser has an overall criticism that would be that The Tales of Hoffmann with the powerful voices of singers like Peake, Kellogg, Stonikas, and Gigliotti is too big an opera for the Barnes of Wolf Trap. However, the Dresser guarantees everyone on that steamy summer's day preferred the air-conditioning of the Barnes to the open air of the main stage. The overall praise extends larger than this well-done production--the Wolf Trap opera productions deserve the highest praise for excellent selection of singers, musicians and supporting design artists and directors as well as for the remarkable sets and costumes.

Certainly Hoffmann is a lover much punished for his bad choices. Stuart Bartow's poem "What the Sirens Sang" echoes strongly with The Tales of Hoffmann in that Odysseus is lashed to the mast of his ship like a punished lover. Also, the poem's narrator speaks of a mirror that becomes a blue vortex that he is dropped into and then he is fished out of this danger by a woman fishing, not unlike what happens to Hoffmann who is saved by his muse.


Cradled in wind the sirens' breath
made warm, their chorus took a shape
that drew Odysseus, lashed
like a punished lover,
melded him to madness.
Their voices merged to one
slender song
rung in liquid tongues
and a language that rose
before words were born,
voices of fish slime
and salt, the wings
of terns and drenched rocks
made smooth as skin,
beckoning, Come to us.

Falls and spray live
in my memory, a woman pleading,
Bring him back. My father
gripped me firmly under the arms,
dangled me over the rail,
over the foam and roar
that sang softer
as I gazed
into Niagara's white infinity.

Did Odysseus say the sirens sang
of a green mirror?
The one I saw was blue.
Sang of homesickness
like lovesickness, endless
war, how no one's life
is concealed from their hunger?
In another life I am dropped
into the blue vortex,
survive, discovered
by a woman fishing on the bank.

Home, she teaches me
the mathematics of space
and terror. In another life
the sirens sing, their lyrics
indistinct. The secret is
there are no words.

Stuart Bartow
Reasons to Hate the Sky

Copyright © 2008 Stuart Bartow

Photo Credit: Carol Pratt


Comments (3)

David L Scally:

I have a few comments about your review, etc:

I too am impatient to hear Olympia, but what goes on before she appears is important to the plot and it is also great music.  This is one of the first productions based upon the “soon to be published” updated work of Kaye and Keck.  For that reason,  it should be complete if the Hoffmann and Nicklaus are up to it.  Cuts can be made after this version has been around for a whileª . 

Somehow or other, I love all of the drunken singing in the Prologue, even though I dislike most of Fledermaus [except for “Mein Herr Marquis” and Adele’s Act III Aria] and The Merry Widow because of their glorification of big time dissipation by the wealthy.   At least the students in “Hoffmann” are regular people and not arrogant, wealthy, self centered, passive dependents who have never done a lick of work in their life.  I hope that most of the students get sick enough, often enough, to switch permanently to “Chateau Diet Coke - 2011”!

I have a hard time liking any aria that makes fun of a person with severe orthopedic & mobility problems, like Kleinzack [Little Zack]§ . However, this aria is incredibly beautiful, especially after Hoffmann’s mind wanders into the first presentation of his Love Song.  If JeffreyTate, the conductor in the 1991 CD Studio Recording of the Kaye Revisions, can stand it, so can I.  Jeffrey Tate, MD, born with severe thoracic kypho-scoliosis, soon left medicine and became a great opera and symphony conductor, unfortunately based almost entirely in Europe these days.

I saw nothing androgynous about Nicklaus.  Because of both her stage presence and her vocal ability, I had my eye on Catherine Martin all night long.  I don’t know any other way to say it nicely:  Nicklaus’ costume made Ms. Martin’s “girl’s incidentals”© obvious. 

Many mezzo-sopranos make a good living portraying males.  I remember when one of the best, Alice Coote¨, once joked in an interview that the best kept secret about her was: “I am actually a girl”.   Nicklaus, as portrayed in this production, seemed to be a “Reverse Drag Queen”, which I guess is what Nicklaus/Muse really is. 

I don’t attend ballet, but I occasionally listen to the recorded music.  I think that Delibes “Coppelia”, as well as Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”, are based upon opuses of E T A Hoffmann.  [So is my favorite Schumann Klavier-work, Kreislerania, Opus 16.]

ª I once heard Patrick Summers, the new General Manager and long time Chief Conductor of the Houston Grand Opera, say that almost all performances have cuts.  “If you want a performance without cuts, buy a recording.”

§ I cannot watch or listen to any of “Oklahoma” because it portrays extreme cruelty to the mentally ill, provoking the sick one into violence and then killing him.

© A term derived from the opening ensemble of “Funny Girl”.

¨ You would have probably enjoyed Ms. Coote’s Vocal Arts Society Recital last season.  The recital was entirely devoted to English Language Songs, including many 20th Century Works.  She also looked great in a spectacular dress that, because she portrays males 95% of the time, she seldom gets to wear.

The Dresser:

The Dresser is delighted that David Scally took the time to respond to her review and to provide a more balanced view of Wolf Trap's excellent production to a sell out crowd.

Martin H. Dickinson:

I liked the Barns Tales of Hoffmann very much. My favorite performance was Jamie-Rose Guarrine's Olympia. That was really amazing. I thought Catherine Martin was great, too. Nathaniel Peake was interesting--not superlatively good like Guarrine. I love the Inside the Opera pre-show and talk that Kim Witman puts on. Two of the studio artists performed the Barcarolle in that lecture/classroom to piano accompaniment for us--and that was really powerful and great. Kim Witman is really interesting to listen to. I ran into my neighbor Milt Grossman, who is a much more veteran opera-goer than I am, and he does not like the Barns though he loves Offenbach and would go anywhere to hear Tales. But I do like the Barns. I like the sound. I find the young artists and the studio artists inspiring. You are really close to the art--it is not something remote and far away. It may not be for everyone--but it's perfect for me.

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