Thursday, November 13, 2008

Deconstructing Hoffmann

Offenbach abandons his pedestal in Tales of Hoffmann.

Every season has its landmark artistic moments - the ones you know you'll remember for years to come. The Boston Lyric Opera production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann is one such moment: it's perhaps not quite as great as BLO's previous pinnacle, the Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson Xerxes from the mid-90s, but in some ways it's actually more intellectually satisfying than even that best-of-the-decade production. It will be remembered as one of the artistic high points of the year, and you are advised to catch one of its remaining performances.

That it has been somewhat under-praised locally merely reminds one that the BLO doesn't get much respect in this provincial burg, perhaps because something of the atmosphere of the "passionate," red-sauce opera house, in which La bohème and Madama Butterfly are in endless rotation, still clings to it. For years, of course, BLO was held back by the ire of the Globe's Richard Dyer, who openly longed for the resurrection of Sarah Caldwell's operatic career, and seemed to see Boston Lyric as a kind of vulgar upstart to be crushed. And now that the divine Sarah, alas, is no more, local opera goers have begun to look to Opera Boston for more challenging (or obscure) musical fare - even though that company's recent productions have been musical disappointments. Still there's some truth in the conventional wisdom about the two group's respective programming; Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann certainly fits neatly into the been-there-done-that "Greatest Hits" opera bin. Every now and then, however, Boston Lyric knocks a warhorse out of the park - most often in co-productions with other companies, in which it can marshal more substantial resources. And Hoffmann (co-produced with companies in St. Louis and Colorado) is one of those home runs - it's been completely rethought and re-invigorated by its design and directing team, and is for the most part beautifully sung, and so prances onstage like nobody's business.

Indeed, the high spirits of the production, I think, somewhat belie its artistic rigor. The design/direction team, Renaud Doucet and André Barbe (who come as a unit), has eschewed the atmosphere of erotic fantasy we usually associate with Hoffman, and has instead worked out a playful, slightly surreal approach that leans towards the tropes of Jules Verne (a contemporary of Offenbach): what look like slices of the Eiffel Tower decorate the painted drops, and a chunk of the Gare (now Musée) d'Orsay is often center stage (above). Essentially the production occurs in a kind of science-fiction transit station, through which Hoffmann moves from one technical illusion to another.

This emphasis on technology may surprise traditionalists, but it's actually a deep comment on the opera's milieu; not for nothing is the first love of the eponymous Hoffmann a mechanical doll. The appetite for technical gratification was probably born in the nineteenth century, and was nowhere more intense than in Paris, a hotbed of scientific investigation and expositions, and, perhaps not coincidentally, also the acknowledged center of legal prostitution. And what, in the end, was the courtesan but a kind of living implement of pleasure? Tellingly, Doucet and Barbe make puppets a recurring motif in their production - even a tomb becomes a giant one - and they turn the mechanical Olympia (below) into not just a toy but a sex toy (while in the Venetian interlude, the pleasure-boats themselves are built of women's bodies).

Gerard Powers falls hard for Georgia Jarman's Olympia.

This is only one of the production's intellectual gambits, however - indeed, there are too many cleverly resonant staging ideas here to count (although to be honest, a few are a bit too broad). Picking up on the self-referential nature of the story (Offenbach saw his own life story in E.T.A. Hoffmann, who made himself the teller of his fantastic Tales), Doucet and Barbe throw Offenbach himself into the action, in the form of a statue (those dolls again) who steps out of his own memorial, along with the monuments to virtue who become his companions. Soon he's even picking up the occasional aria or, Proust-like, managing some stage business (at the finale, he's even "killed" by his own creation). The end result of all this is a physical production that actually achieves what opera is always supposed to do: that is, produce an artistic effect in which every aspect of the performance (and not merely the musical or dramatic ones) is integral.

Creator is killed by his creation at the climax of Tales of Hoffmann.

Which doesn't mean this Tales isn't often musically superb - although, it does, I have to admit, suffer from a slight gap in its lead role. Tenor Gerard Powers has a clarion top to his voice, but a less burnished middle, and while he's at home in the role's knowing comedy, he is not, perhaps, convincing as a romantic roué. Still, Powers provides a solid fulcrum around which more dazzling performances revolve. Local heroine Georgia Jarman (she studied at B.U.) essays not one but all four of Hoffmann's loves, a musical marathon which she brings off with aplomb, via a voice flexible enough to manage the technical requirements of each character (all of whom sing in different styles). Jarman was dramatically most convincing as Giuletta, but vocally most moving as Antonia (the most sympathetic of Hoffmann's loves, and the one with the most sophisticated music - unfortunately Jarman allowed her passion at times to get a little bug-eyed). Jarman alone is reason enough to see this show, but she may actually be bested by Michèle Losier in the trousers role of Hoffmann/Offenbach's alter ego and muse. Losier spends the whole evening in bronze paint, which doesn't seem to faze her in the least, nor hobble a performance that's both ravishing vocally and utterly convincing dramatically. There were other performances to savor - Matthew DiBattista did light, agile work as Offenbach, and Gaétan LaPerrière, though at times a bit stiff physically, deployed a menacingly rich baritone throughout his four characterizations (another marathon), and conjured a potent chill in his turn as the seductive "Doctor Miracle," whose last appearance in the audience offered yet another thematic thrill.

Down in the pit, maestro Keith Lockhart brought a light brio to the score (although perhaps the famous "Barcarolle" could drift along a shade more slowly), and the chorus performed with power and panache. At the time of his death, Offenbach left much of Tales of Hoffmann as little more than a sketch - but it's easy to believe that wherever he is, he's smiling on this clever re-invention of his greatest work.

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