It’s been more than a quarter century since Lyric produced Jacques Offenbach’s masterwork, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, originally produced posthumously in 1881 and Lyric’s version of the Nicolas Joel production is worth the wait. The primary feature of the charming set design is a magnificent set piece of a Belle Epoque railway station, reminiscent of the station that now houses the Musée d’Orsay, sort of a combination of that and the Nautilus. The entire production design has a sort of steampunk quality to it, whether the railway station set piece, the locomotive that pulls onstage at the end of the prologue, the fabulous representation of Olympia, the mechanical doll in Act I who rolls rather than walks, or the amusing mechanical horse-drawn carriage in which Dr. Miracle arrives in Act II.
James Morris. James Morris sang the villains of the opera—Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto—chewing the scenery with sardonic Mephistophelean verve. What an illustration of what a great singer-actor can accomplish! His contagious energy and larger than life carriage filled the stage, buoyed the other performers, and propelled the entire production.
Every aspect of the performance was delightful from the staging to the sets to the performers to the chorus to the controlled melding of the voices with the orchestra. Matthew Polenzani’s Hoffman was brilliant and moving and, as the work itself virtually ensures, each of his three “loves” sang magnificently. I would draw particular attention to Anna Christy’s Olympia. Just as I have never seen a better Lindorf, I have never seen a better Olympia. Both her singing and her acting were perfection.
I would send you off to see it but, alas, last night’s was the final performance.
John Von Rhein was equally delighted:
No single realization of “Hoffmann” can possibly please everyone. But this one works as well as any I’ve seen, and for most opera-goers (also those new to opera) Lyric’s top-notch cast, conducting and production values make this a show to see.
He also calls appropriate attention to the dramatic weight of Emily Fons’s portrayal of Nicklausse/the Muse of Poetry, tremendously affecting.
Andrew Patner is more critical:
Offenbach’s is a musical setting of Jules Barbier’s play imagining early 19th century German poet (and Nutcracker author) E.T.A. Hoffmann’s attempts to find love as he wrestles with art. It contains much beautiful French atmosphere and such beloved bits as the Venetian barcarolle for female duet and the aria of a mechanical doll who runs, literally, out of steam. And in the expert hands of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, the 21/2-hour score (two intermissions add another hour to the evening) has rarely sounded as crisp, idiomatic, intelligent and even exciting.
But to stage this dark and rarely performed comedy — Lyric’s first since 1982 and only its third since 1976 — without making a new investigation of the various completions, editions and insertions to the score or asking a stage director to look afresh at the set of stories of empty loves (a doll, a dying and self-involved singer, a prostitute) leading to artistic insight is less than inspired.
He clearly preferred Alfredo Kraus’s portrayal back in 1982. I beg to disagree. Kraus’s Hoffmann was an older and more beaten man; Polenzani’s is a student. I think that both are valid interpretations. And, yes, this is a nearly 40 year old production. I’ve never seen it before and it was wonderfully fresh to me.