The return of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann to the stage of San Francisco Opera on Wednesday night was a welcome and long overdue event. Last heard here in 1996, this exquisite masterpiece of drama, comedy, and timeless musical inspiration has never occupied a significant role in the company’s history, but hopefully the enthusiastic response of the large and appreciative opening night audience will precipitate a local reappraisal. Too often, this work has been scheduled because one singer wanted to portray all four heroines and such was the case with San Francisco Opera’s production; soprano Natalie Dessay was initially announced to attempt the feat. This gimmick, which finds an equally pointless analog in sopranos aspiring to sing the three heroines in Puccini’s Il Trittico, was fortunately abandoned when Ms Dessay declared she would sing only the role of Antonia, appropriately refocusing attention on the opera itself.

Matthew Polenzani and Hye Jung Lee © Cory Weaver
Matthew Polenzani and Hye Jung Lee
© Cory Weaver

Any time Les Contes d’Hoffmann is presented, the question of which version to use is unavoidable. The composer labored incessantly over the work in his later years, leaving sundry manuscripts unfinished at his death in 1880. Several incarnations have been presented throughout its complicated performance history, yet Hoffmann’s essence has been remarkably resilient to the affects of adding/subtracting arias, switching the acts around, and alternate endings for its Venetian scene. Ink is spilled in the program about “Les versions d”Hoffmann” (including an excellent “summing up” article by Thomas May), but Laurent Pelly’s new production makes no self-important or controversial claims at correctness; it is but one approach that essentially follows the Kaye-Keck critical edition, but with occasional satisfying surprises here and there.

Pelly’s realization of the work is stark and near monochromatic. The gray, bare walls and building block-shaped props were shifted about and reconfigured to provide the settings for the various scenes, while eerie lighting gave the surfaces a bluish tint. Some stage recesses remained impenetrably black; portending something sinister lay within. Were we seeing the inside of Hoffmann’s mind? Tales of failed love affairs were presented as imagined reveries made pictorially non-descript by the poet’s affection for the bottle. Even the framing story where Hoffmann entertains tavern folk was presented as a monologue with perceived auditors, the poet standing before two closed doors and chorus members periodically sticking their heads through to comment. Despite a sameness of presentation, Pelly’s emphasis on Hoffmann’s interior life yielded a powerful effect, aided greatly by the performance of the artist in the title role.

Long respected for his excellence as a Mozart tenor, Matthew Polenzani’s performance as Hoffmann showed that he has clearly reached a new, more richly varied phase of his career. Earning plaudits for recent performances in heavier roles such as Alfredo in La Traviata, his assumption of Hoffmann, first in Chicago and now San Francisco, is a bold, well-timed move for this artist. His ability to meet the role’s vocal requirements, sustain dramatic interest, and give his best at the end of a long performance showed that Polenzani, indeed, has the goods and he was superb. Filling in for Alice Coote, who withdrew from the production, American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower was an excellent Nicklausse/Muse. Her violin aria, “Vois sous l’archet”, was gorgeously sung and provided one of the evening’s most poignant moments: with Hoffmann climbing the stairs to Antonia’s room, Nicklausse futilely tries to inspire the poet to pursue his creative gift over another ill-fated love affair. Though doomed to fail, her cares for Hoffman’s gift and his heart were clear in Brower’s impassioned singing.

Bass baritone Christian Van Horn sang the four villains. Achieving his best impact as Lindorf, Van Horn’s consistency of characterization was too even and detached for the more fantastical Dr Miracle, Coppélius, and Dappertutto; there is more fun to be had with the weird characters in this opera. Returning from last summer’s appearances as Madame Mao in Adams’ Nixon in China, Hye Jung Lee made another indelible impression, as the mechanical doll, Olympia. In one unexpectedly colorful outburst of Pelly’s mostly cool staging, Lee was thrust out above the audience on a crane for the end of her aria “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” – talk about pressure to nail the high note! She did, and it brought the house down.

Dessay gave a touching, understated performance as Antonia. She and conductor Patrick Fournillier did not appear to agree on tempo during “Elle a fui la tourterelle” (both wanted different degrees of fast), but Dessay proved a sympathetic partner to Polenzani during the rest of Act III. Several performers made significant contributions as members of a strong ensemble cast, especially mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts in her San Francisco Opera debut as Giulietta, tenor Thomas Glenn as Spalanzani, and character tenor Steven Cole in four small but memorable roles.

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