I flew to Chicago early yesterday morning to arrive in time for a matinee of Lyric’s opening production of the season, Offenbach’s THE TALES OF HOFFMANN, which opened last week to wonderful reviews.
One would never have guessed, but Matthew Polenzani was performing the title role for the first time in his career. He was terrific, and sang this challenging role effortlessly (and in flawless French, according to someone who should know—conductor Emmanuel Villaume.)
The four villains were enacted by James Morris, a veteran of many productions of HOFFMANN, and it showed. He obviously relishes these roles, and is particularly
effective as the sinister “Dr. Miracle” in the “Antonia” (Munich) act.
The version performed was mostly the Choudens edition (as it was heard a few years ago in Dallas) but included the so-called “Violin” aria for “Nicklausse” which allowed Emily Fons, a member of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center (their young artists program) an opportunity to impress us with her musicality and sensitivity to French style. A wonderful performance!
Lyric chose to use three sopranos for the heroines, and although Anna Christy as “Olympia” was delightful, the most ravishing singing came from Erin Wall as “Antonia.” Erin is a former member of Lyric’s young artist program (and a former winner of the Dallas Opera Guild’s Vocal Competition) and looked and sounded radiant.
The rest of the cast was very good, including David Cangelosi’s mad scientist, “Spalanzani” and Rodell Rosel as the four servants.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume conducted elegantly and with real panache. This is a deceptively difficult score to make coherent because of its episodic nature and the various choices the conductor has to make among all the editions and variations available. Emmanuel kept things moving where it needed to move and lingered lovingly when the music required. He has a real affinity and affection for French music (as anyone who heard him conduct FAUST in Dallas can attest) but he seems to enjoy great success in a wide variety of musical styles (as he did in Dallas with Mozart’s MARRIAGE OF FIGARO many years ago.
Since the musical values were so elevated, I just wish the production was more effective. Originally staged by Nicolas Joel, the scenery by Ezio Frigerio, (although it looked lovely) made no sense. The “Show Curtain” when the audience walked into the theatre, was an enormous poster for a circus side show (with the text, inexplicably, in English) and Jim Morris dressed as a ringmaster. While this concept was intriguing and could have worked, when the curtain went up, the permanent set, which never really changed, seemed to put us inside a train station, and the circus theme completely abandoned. Why we were inside a train station was never explained, and made no sense in any of the acts.
The one truly clever “bit” was to have “Olympia” the mechanical doll, on a computerized wagon that slid around the stage by remote control. There were also mechanized instruments that mysteriously “played” themselves in the “Antonia” act and gondoliers in the “Giulietta” act that were automatons.
This was obviously an attempt to tie all of Hoffmann’s tales together somehow, but it simply didn’t work.
This afternoon I will hear the members of the Ryan Center in audition, and tonight attend the opening of a new production of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, which will be an interesting experience, since The Dallas Opera is currently in rehearsal for LUCIA, which is set to open on October 21 with a very different cast.