When Plácido Domingo steps onstage, opera audiences cheer. But when the General Director of a company emerges pre-performance, it’s always bad news. In this case, Los Angeles Opera’s The Tales of Hoffmann, already plagued by last-minute cast changes, received yet another. Not only would Diana Damrau not sing all four heroines (confining herself to Antonia and Stella), her husband Nicholas Testé would not sing any of the villains. The ailing bass-baritone instead pantomimed the role while Wayne Tigges sang from the pit.
I am happy to report that none of these substitutions seem to have hurt the musical quality of the show. Damrau chose her heroine well, singing Antonia with melting softness and spinning lines of sound. It would have been exciting – both musically and as a feat of athleticism – to hear her sing Olympia and Giulietta as well, but it also would have been a shame to miss So Young Park’s and Kate Aldrich’s voices in the roles. Physically, Park was a very mechanical doll, and the precision of her voice matched that of her movements. Every note of the role’s difficult coloratura was spot on, every trill even, and every pianissimo section restrained but resonant. If her voice lost carrying power at the bottom, who cares when it sparkled so at the top? Mezzo Kate Aldrich’s Giulietta was a different kind of treat: big-voiced and sultry. She refused to be overpowered by Vittorio Grigolò, matching him in force and tone during their act II duet.
Vittorio Grigòlo’s tenor is best described as muscular. He effortlessly held long, pingy high notes and sounded as fresh at the end of the opera as at the beginning. His Hoffmann impressed with stage business as well as singing, most notably delivering the whole first section of the “Kleinzach” aria while walking about in a squat! Grigolò’s acting seemed to have three modes: drunk, infatuated and desperate, but then that’s all the story calls for. As his faithful friend Nicklausse (in reality the disguised Muse), mezzo Kate Lindsey sang with rich tone and buttery legato, even while kicking her heels up and strumming a guitar throughout an aria. Her mocking impression of Olympia deservedly earned the evening’s biggest laugh. In this not-so-funny opera, her only comedic rival was Christophe Mortagne as the four servants. His act III aria was a hoot, featuring a well-placed vocal crack, humorous use of falsetto and a smoothly executed magic trick. From the pit, Wayne Tigges sang the four villains in a pleasantly gravelly bass-baritone with a shade of menace, while Nicholas Testé hammed it up onstage.
Hoffmann is an opera with a version control problem, offering many editorial choices. Here, those choices collectively made the opera too long. The usually generously slashed Prologue included long introductory pieces for both the Muse and Lindorf. Recitative was used in place of dialogue. Both Dappertutto's Diamond aria and the septet were included in Giulietta’s act, presumably to pad it out so it could stand alone. (LA Opera made the now-unusual choice to present Giulietta’s act before Antonia’s, contrary to Offenbach’s original ordering.) The result was four hours long – too much for a fantastical opera with little substance.
A vein of indulgence ran through Plácido Domingo’s conducting as well. The LA Opera Orchestra sounded great and clearly enjoys this music. The prelude to Olympia’s act was energetic, brassy and playful; the later two acts, seductive and languishing. But there was – strange to say – too much deference paid to the singers. Grigolò in particular was allowed to drag out his lines (which he did, shamelessly, on many occasions).
The concept and direction by Marta Domingo was attractive but obvious. A typical German tavern housed the Prologue and Epilogue. Olympia’s act took place in a giant toybox in the 1830s. The choice of decade was puzzling (too early for Offenbach, too late for Hoffmann), but furnished an excellent excuse for poufy-sleeved gowns and gravity-defying hairstyles. Giulietta’s act was all blues and greens in a Moorish palace with an unsubtle lamp made of snakes. (Beware temptation!) Antonia’s act was bare by contrast, in a dark, chilly-looking house. Miracle appeared amidst clouds of arsenic-green fog, just in case anyone had forgotten he was the villain.
This Hoffmann is pretty, both visually and vocally. But the length of the opera and the literal staging detract from the drama.
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