Seattle Opera turned fifty this season, and through 31 of those years Speight Jenkins has been General Director. In September he will step down and be succeeded by Aidan Lang, who comes with great credentials from the New Zealand Opera where he has been General Director since 2004. No matter how confident fans, staff and artists may be in the new leadership, Jenkins’ departure is momentous and induced a lot of emotion in the crowd on opening night of this season’s final opera, Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. The tone was at once a joyous and melancholy—much like the opera itself.
The Tales of Hoffman may not be the most famous opera, nor does it even have arias that are immediately recognizable to audiences, but it was absolutely the perfect choice for the occasion. Its convoluted narrative combines the grotesque, the riotous and the melancholy into an opera about opera—and as all artistic disciplines meet in opera, Hoffman is ultimately about art and the artistic process, love and the human spirit in all its splendor and squalor.
It’s also an incredibly strange opera, and anyone familiar with the fiction of the eponymous Hoffman will wonder how his eerie, gothic tales could be adapted into a comedic opera. Truthfully, the libretto is not without its flaws (more on that later), but it does succeed in taking grim, morbid source material and relieving it of its dread while maintaining its uncanny, cautionary aspects. What results is a romantic frame for three of Hoffman’s tales in which he, the author, is the paramour of three doomed women. Or is it four? Or is it one?
In fact, the three women are said to be various aspects of the same woman, Stella, the primadonna opera singer. Rather than the usual tripartite maiden-mother-crone, Hoffman’s feminine trinity is maiden-artist-courtesan. This much makes sense for Hoffmann: The girl is the object of stupefied, doting affection; the artist is the object of intense, intellectual admiration; the courtesan is the object of carnal desire. Respectively, they say more about Hoffmann as romantic, aesthete and sensualist than they do about Stella, who is her own person, but remains a mystery to the audience, never speaking, only responding with what dignity she can to Hoffmann’s advances and—eventually—debauched abuse.
The silent acting role of Stella is usually played by one woman, and the three other singers generally play each of Hoffman’s women: a coloratura soprano sings as Olympia, the robotic maiden; a lyric soprano performs Antonia, the ghostly artist; a mezzo-soprano plays Giulietta, the sultry courtesan. In Seattle Opera’s production on opening night, the fusion of these characters in one being was remarkably accomplished by one singer, Norah Amsellem, who showed enormous range in her voice and her acting abilities. Indeed, the whole cast must be able to act in a variety of roles, and everyone did splendidly.
The title role of Hoffmann was played by William Burden, who sang beautifully and also showed great acting chops, believably progressing from glittering raconteur to pathetic drunk and a gamut of roles in between. Hoffmann is not a very likeable character ultimately. As his ideal feminine figures, the women show an interesting arc of will, from the automaton of Olympia (without a will of her own) to the conflicted and tortured Antonia (who chooses death over silence) to the femme fatale Giullietta (who bends others to her own will), but this provides an incomplete picture and the stories chosen from Hoffmann’s works don’t really add up to the full figure of Stella he is said to adore. The source material feels uncomfortably forced into the framework of Hoffmann’s romances…but a few things save the day.
First, Hoffman is a bit of a lunatic, so one feels inclined to suspend one’s critical voice a little. More than that, we also see that he is self-absorbed and these women are merely fulfillments of his own emotional needs, which are thwarted in each case by a diabolical force portrayed by Nicolas Cavallier. This diabolical force comes in the form of Dr Coppelius, Dr Miracle and the puppet master Dappertutto in the three framed narratives and Count Lindorf in the opera house, where Hoffman relates his tales and pines over Stella. Lindorf rules by fear and subterfuge rather than by love, but Hoffmann—flawed as he is—is not so much a dramatic foil as he is simply outclassed. As abstract as they are, the women are relatively weak and at the whims of Hoffmann and the villain, and the villain always wins. By the end, you’d rather root for him in many ways.
The whole libretto could have fallen flat were it not for the crucial invention of Hoffmann’s muse, played by Kate Lindsey. The opera truly begins with a drunken, hallucination of Hoffmann’s wherein his muse sings of conflicted and ultimately fickle heart. It seems like merely a whimsical prologue, but it accomplishes much more. The story of his obsession with Stella frames the three tales, but that obsession is framed in terms of his higher pursuits, the choice he must make between pouring energy into phantoms and unrequited love…or sublimating his desires and turning these phantoms into his fiction, his art. Hence, the opera’s myriad tropes combine in a larger, giddy allegory about art and why we create in the first place. The linchpin is the muse, who spends most of the time posing as Hoffmann’s male chum, Nicklausse. It’s definitely a supporting role, but just the presence of the muse is essential to the success of the play. The divine feminine is the voice of reason and of salvation and must take the form of a man to communicate with Hoffmann on his terms—a sign of the times and also a reflection on Hoffmann’s own dissipation and arrogance. Again, he is not likeable, but we accept that mature love escapes him both in spite of and because of his brilliance. The Tales of Hoffmann is in some ways an apologia for “artistic types” but above all for the aesthetic, romantic and creative impulses that can drive us all a little loopy when they strike. It’s as absurd as romance and life itself.
But there’s more: The staging of Hoffmann is quite unique. At several points, the backdrop of the stage becomes an opera house and the audience is viewing everything from backstage. Hoffmann doesn’t just break the fourth wall; it pulls up the foundation and turns it 180 degrees. This is another brilliant device and another quiet ode to the magic behind the stage. It is in many ways a beautiful tribute to Speight Jenkins and to Perry Lorenzo, the former Director of Education at Seattle Opera who passed away in 2009.
This is quite personal to me, as Perry was a dear friend of mine whose passing absolutely devastated me. Watching Hoffmann was a profound reminder of our conversations, especially how he spoke of his earliest exposures to opera and theatre as a child. He was a devout Catholic and made theological parallels between this idea of the stage and the world behind its velvet veil, whereas I (an inveterate apostate) was more postmodern if I was forced to make an allegory of it, but we found common ground in stage itself, in a mutual love of beauty and aesthetics. So it is with everyone who is profoundly moved by art; the most irreconcilable differences in thinking can be dissolved in that ultimate joy of creation.
I do not care if this sounds a bit maudlin; I absolutely believe it is true, and I believe this closing piece was a thoughtful tribute to both Jenkins and Perry, to all who make these things possible and have made it possible for fifty years now.
The legacy continues…as does the meta-narrative established by Seattle Opera with Hoffmann. During the Tales, while Hoffmann is entertaining guests in the bar, Stella is on stage performing Don Giovanni. Of course, the wicked, loveless, seductive power of Count Lindorf in Hoffmann borrows from the devious Don, and that character’s damnation suggests an unseen, unsavory and inevitable end to the Count, who walks away unscathed and unpunished in Hoffmann. It allows Offenbach to focus on the artist’s perils and also participate in an ageless conversation among artists and composers through the art itself. Seattle Opera continues this conversation in its own right; the first performance of the next season will be Don Giovanni.
Seattle Opera has lost two lions of the arts in the last five years, but the show goes on with new blood and insights that still honor the past, the legacy of centuries and the sum of so many artistic endeavors. It is a sad time; merely being reminded of Perry’s absence has made the jubilance of the production that much more bittersweet. However, for everyone else I cannot recommend this production enough on its own merits and also as the final act in a long career in service of the arts locally, a tribute and a triumph worth celebrating.
The Tales of Hoffmann plays through Saturday, May 17.