Hoffmann Takes A Hit In Santa Fe

While gifted with some lovely melodic writing and opportunities for grand
operatic singing, the story of a depressed alcoholic poet (“he never
drinks water,” one line has it), and his tales of futile amorous
adventure often seem over-stuffed with dialogue and redundant action. This
opera is expensive and difficult to produce, and in the end bears only a
negative message.

Just what Hoffmann’s message is has long been a subject of
discussion. My view is that once the pretty surface of melody and musical charm
is peeled back, below lies only vegetable cellulose, or nothing much. Some will
argue that romantic fantasy is at the core of the piece; others find 19th
century existential angst; Richard Wagner condemned it for a lack of
“moral” value. I would tend to express it more in terms of the bad
psychology of a neurotically disturbed man who through the confusions of
alcohol and dissipation dooms his own romantic ambitions. However any of that
may be, it is best to take Hoffmann as an exercise in visual pleasure
and melodic delight — if there are singers and producers to make it
happen, and a producer and music director to give it a light and stylish

_MG_4874.gifErin Wall as Antonia

In Santa Fe Opera’s heavy-handed production, the show turned out to be
badly cast and suffocatingly over-produced. None of the singers was adequate to
the task at hand; the voices were minor or flawed. The leading tenor, Paul
Groves, the key figure in the opera, who looked and played well, seemed to have
no upper register and was often short on volume. Professional that he is,
Groves soldiered through, but he was far from the real thing, in this most
lyrical of big French tenor parts.

Canadian soprano Erin Wall assumed the neigh-impossible task of singing the
three major soprano roles the opera requires, the coloratura doll of Act I,
Olympia, the lyric soprano of Act II, Antonia and the soprano or mezzo part of
the Venetian courtesan, Giulietta, in Act III. She did not have the light
agility or highest tones required by Olympia, as Santa Fe’s management
must surely have known, and thus it seems a decision was made to turn her
Olympia into Gilbert & Sullivan camp — if she did not have the clean
runs or pin-point high notes, well mark it up to technical difficulties in her
manufacturer Spalanzani’s design. All in good fun? Ho hum. In later acts
Wall fared better, and demonstrated a solid top, through high-C, as Antonia
though not much tonal allure or play of color; her voice seemed to thicken
under pressure, which was much of the time. As an actress Wall was never more
than bland.

_MG_4336.gifKate Lindsey as Nicklausse, Wayne Tigges as Councilor Lindorf and Students

The only other singer I will address now is the bass-baritone Wayne Tigges,
a last minute replacement for an ailing colleague in the all-consuming and
vocally demanding roles of Offenbach’s four villains, who are in every
scene, with much to sing, and comprise the engine that drives the thrust of
“evil” though the show — that is quite aside from demon rum.
Tigges proved a boy sent to do a man’s job, and while earnest and
hard-working he did not have the magnetic personality or force or maturity of
voice to claim the part. He needs coaching in menace with John Malcovich.

With an inadequate tenor and bass, and soprano who was short on stage
charisma and vocal interest, Offenbach’s score was not well-served. I
have to say, and am sorry to do so, that Stephen Lord, music director of Opera
Theatre of St. Louis, was a cut-and-dried conductor in the pit. While his
orchestra played well enough, far too often Maestro Lord’s direction
lacked vitality, dragged where it should have sparkled, left dead moments and,
in general, lacked shape, flow and accent. Disappointing.

Now we come to Santa Fe’s stage producer, one of the most famous
bad-boys of opera, Christopher Alden — who fully lived up to his
reputation. I am going to keep this short — who needs a list of horrors?
Alden’s direction was everywhere fussy and mannered, secondary characters
moved in slow motion, slithered across the stage floor, pranced about their
heads in picture frames, joined hands in a merry trio of dancing — and so
on, endlessly. In the final moments of Act II, gilded high-style Second Empire
opera boxes emerged from stage right holding an audience eager to applaud the
diva Antonia, who had expired moments before. Ah so! We were watching a play
within a play (who knew?) — and the Second Act, which Offenbach had
already provided with an unnecessary anti-climax following Antonia’s
death, offered yet another development as Antonia arose from the dead and took
her bows. Now, let’s see, where did that plot go?

_MG_5563.gifPaul Groves as Hoffmann, Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse, Wayne Tigges as Captain Dapertutto, Erin Wall as Giulietta, David Cangelosi as Pitichinaccio and Darik Knutsen as Peter SchlÈmil (standing)

Costumes? Elegant, lavish with Victorian flounces, bustles and ruffles
everywhere. Set? Not bad, actually: it all transpired in Luther’s Tavern,
a high handsome room with five massive beams across the ceiling, a dark wood
dado around the room and white plastered walls that showed off various plaques
and hangings. Platforms with minimal trappings for scenes following the
Tavern’s opening one (the Kleinsach scene), were brought in and out; they
proved effective, and in the Venetian scene featured a massive painting in the
style of Turner depicting the grand canal. It worked!

Maybe we will write more about all this later in the season; these things
have a way of ripening, and several of the secondary players deserve attention
for some were excellent. For now SFO’s Tales of Hoffmann is a
game hardly worth the candle.

© 2010 James A. Van Sant/Santa Fe

Click here for a contrary opinion.

image_description=Paul Groves (Hoffmann) and Erin Wall (Giulietta) [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann
product_by=Stella / Olympia: Erin Wall; Antonia / Giulietta: Erin Wall; Nicklausse: Kate Lindsey; Voice of Antonia’s Mother: Jill Grove; Hoffmann: Paul Groves; Spalanzani: Mark Schowalter; Lindorf / Coppelius: Wayne Tigges; Dr. Miracle / Dapertutto: Wayne Tigges; Andres / Cochenille: David Cangelosi; Frantz / Pittichinaccio: David Cangelosi; Crespel / Luther: Harold Wilson. Conductor: Stephen Lord. Director: Christopher Alden. Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer. Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman. Lighting Designer: Pat Collins.
product_id=Above: Paul Groves as Hoffmann and Erin Wall as Giulietta

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera