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REVIEW: 'Composer’s Cut' of 'Tales of Hoffmann' soars at LA Opera

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Offenbach died before completing "Tales of Hoffmann." But this is as close to a Composer’s Cut of this problematic masterpiece as we are likely ever to hear.

Off-Ramp culture correspondent Marc Haefele reviews Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann," at LA Opera through April 15.

This production went viral, but not in a good way. First , star coloratura Diana Damrau caught the bug and had to drop two of her four roles in Jacques Offenbach’s sprawling operatic masterpiece.  Then her real-life husband, baritone lead Nicolas Teste, caught it too, and had to play on-stage ventriloquist dummy to a singer in the pit on the opening night of LA Opera’s “Tales of Hoffmann.’’

By the end of the week, Teste, officially “indisposed,” had dropped out completely. The performance I saw March 30 featured the sublimely talented Long-Island-born Christian Van Horn as the show’s fourfold villain, who goes under the splendid names of  Lindorf; Coppelius; Dapertutto and Dr. Miracle. More on him in a moment.

First a word about the story, or stories. Offenbach, a German-born Jew who invented the operetta and made it huge in Paris, for decades carried a torch for  German literature’s all-time Wizard of Weird, E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Jacques Offenbach
Gaspard-Félix Tournachon/Wikipedia
Jacques Offenbach

Although Hoffmann’s surreal stories inspired other composers’ great works (Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker;” Delibes’ "Coppelia,” etc.), Offenbach’s librettist, Jules Barbier,  was inspired to make the incredibly self-destructive and besotted Hoffmann the central character.  This Hoffmann tells three stories of his own grotesquely thwarted loves—a mechanical doll; an avaricious courtesan, a doomed soprano-- while he sits inebriated, waiting for a fourth love to show up.

Meanwhile,  silent in a corner, sits the villain Lindorf  (Van Horn), black top hat and all, waiting to snatch this last love, the diva La Stella, away from Hoffmann.   

Just try to explain all this to someone new to the opera. But the biggest problem is that Offenbach died 4 months before the premiere, leaving all kinds of music, complete and incomplete, all over his workplace. Ever since, scholars have struggled to put together a “Hoffmann” that really works. LA Opera’s edition, based on the research of Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, really does.  It is as close to a Composer’s Cut of this problematic masterpiece as we are likely ever to hear.

Tenor Vittorio Grigolo was a fine romantic lead, lauding with equal eloquence and vocal perfection Hoffmann’s ideal of womankind and his devastating love of alcohol.  Grigolo had a vivid physical presence, too, although his stagey collapses came a little too often.

His female foil was mezzo Kate Lindsey, in the dual role of  Hoffmann’s classical muse and Nicklausse, the best friend and caretaker. In this new edition, the muse  is also the soul of the entire work, perceiving Hoffmann’s mighty flaws and mightier genius, and persuading him that his travails are what nourishes his art.  (I wondered: where does one find a muse like this?).  A brilliant singer, a fine actress whose role hovers between tragedy and comedy, Lindsay elevates the entire production.

Diana Damrau, who was supposed to sing all three  principle soprano roles, excelled as Antonia, the supposedly mortally-ill 20-year-old who sings herself to death at the end of Act III. The recently-ill Damrau was the picture of health as she brilliantly vocalized her way toward the hereafter, assisted by the villainous Dr. Miracle’s fiddling and the spirit of her departed mother, winningly sung by Sharmay Musacchio. (The role also demanded that Musacchio, in the form of a powder-white statue, stand stock still for around 20 minutes until activated by the villain).

So Young Park sang the goofy, skyrocketing roulades of the doll Olympia to perfection, while her loopy performance as a 19th Century wind-up android was hilarious just this side of hammy. Mezzo Kate Aldrich was gorgeous to see and to hear as the courtesan Giulietta, who betrays Hoffman in exchange for a diamond the size of a regulation softball.

The jewel was offered by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn’s villain, of course. Parachuted into the role on little notice, Van Horn stole scene after scene with  his brilliant acting—his presence often reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch--and actinic singing. By the last act, he is become the very luminous incarnation of evil. What a Scarafucile he would be!

Also worthy of mention was tenor Christophe Montagne as the four extremely diverse servants. Another, less obvious occasional role was some extremely demanding third act cello soloing from the pit, recalling that Offenbach was one of the greatest cellists on Earth. I expect  LA Opera’s principal cellist John Walz was making those lovely sounds. 

Stage director Marta Domingo made some wise decisions in this production, perhaps the best of which was to use Giovanni Agostinucci’s scrumptious 2002 sets and costumes. When people clapped as the 3rd act curtain went up, I wondered, how long has it been since I’ve heard an LA Opera audience applaud sets? Marta’s husband Placido, who has an opera career in bis own right, conducted with meticulous warmth.

They too helped make this “Hoffmann” a near-perfect night at the opera.

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