From afar: ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ and a farewell in Seattle

This is the first in a new series of occasional posts, taking advantage of our Listers who find themselves away from SoCal, whether visiting or relocated.  Alan Nitikman is a longtime Lister now living in Washington, and reports from Seattle Opera’s recent and historic run of the Offenbach opera, The Tales of Hoffman.

Hoffman staggers onto a pitch black stage, clutching a phosporescent green-glowing bottle, as the overture starts.  It’s empty, so he tosses it away.  More bottles appear in the air and dance tantalizingly around him as he grabs for one. He slumps to the ground and the overture continues, until…

Cut to a pre-intermission bar — one modeled after the elegant bar at the Palais Garnier (the stage on which Offenbach had hoped to see this opera staged).  We see the lobby from the bartenders’ side of the counter.  The patrons arrive and all are awaiting the arrival of the life of the party, Hoffmann himself.

Speight Jenkins, outgoing General Director of Seattle OperaThis opera production is the last for General Director Speight Jenkins (pictured right).  After 31 years with the company (1983-2014), and at Seattle Opera’s 50th anniversary, he is passing the baton to Aidan Lang.  It’s a heavy baton, having passed first from Glynn Ross, who brought SO its reputation as a gutsy innovator, including a Ring cycle. It then went to Jenkins, who took the reins with no prior leadership experience — just a highly-respected career as a writer and lover of opera.

As it turned out, I was witnessing history, a changing of the guard.  Jenkins has been a powerful force in Seattle and in opera, taking chances and bringing a drama-focused vision to all his productions, while making sure that both vocal and musical demands would be fully met.

This Hoffman was first brought to the stage in 2005.  Jenkins had originally intended to mount Die Meistersinger for his last production, but felt that to do that during a recession would damage the company, so remounted this — one of his favorite productions of the company. Chris Alexander, the original director, was brought back to make sure the original vision was preserved.

Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey) encourages Hoffmann (William Burden) to drink away his broken heart in The Tales of Hoffmann, 2014 © Elise Bakketun
Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey) encourages Hoffmann (William Burden) to drink away his broken heart in The Tales of Hoffmann, 2014.    © Elise Bakketun

The Hoffmann in this production, opening night, was William Burden, who played him as a passionate romantic with an easy vocal production throughout the demanding central role, the opera lasting almost 4 hours in this version.  A revelation in this production was Kate Lindsey, as the Muse/Nicklausse.  In this production, the role of the Muse is not just hinted at, but given an aria in the Antonia act (“The Violin Aria”) and an epilogue, a finale to the opera tying the theme of sublimating all of the love and pain in Hoffmann’s life into new life in his brilliant writing.  These 2 musical numbers remained unheard until discovered in the 1970’s.  Jenkins’s vision was that the Muse should take back her role as the guiding force in Hoffmann’s life and not just a young sidekick, as Nicklausse is traditionally portrayed, with only a reference or two to his true nature as Hoffmann’s Muse.  The transformation at the top and revelation in the middle and at the close to her true nature ties the story together in a way it couldn’t be before.

Olympia (Norah Amsellem) and Spalanzani (Steven Cole) in The Tales of Hoffmann, 2014 © Elise Bakketun
Olympia (Norah Amsellem) and Spalanzani (Steven Cole) in The Tales of Hoffmann, 2014
© Elise Bakketun

The other 2 leads, Norah Amsellem and Nicolas Cavallier, both took on the prismatic soprano and bass-baritone leads, Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella and Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto respectively.  Both are extremely challenging, especially the soprano, the parts being originally written for quite different voice types (Giulietta was originally a mezzo role, Olympia a high coloratura, Antonia a lyric).  They made each of their characterizations unique and believable.  The comic tenor Keith Jameson performed the roles of Andres/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio with commedia dell’arte flair.  Steven Cole was a brilliantly silly Spalanzani, the smaller roles of Luther (Jonathan Silvia), Hermann (Misha Myznikov), Nathanel (Eric Neuville), and Schlemil (Stephen Fish), were beautifully sung and well played.  In the “Antonia” Act, her mother was played by Tichina Vaughn, every bit the diva, Arthur Woodley played a deeply-felt and powerfully sung Crespel.

Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour...Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey) sings Offenbach’s famous Barcarolle in The Tales of Hoffmann, 2014    © Elise Bakketun
Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour…Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey) sings Offenbach’s famous Barcarolle in The Tales of Hoffmann, 2014 © Elise Bakketun

The Giulietta Act, opening to a Venice canal by moonlight brought a well-deserved roar of applause, as Antonia arrives with entourage via a gondola, gliding across the shimmering canal.  There is some clever by-play to dramatize Giulietta’s capture of Hoffmann’s image, if not his soul, by means of a miniature gondola rolling on downstage, containing a miniature Hoffmann and Giulietta, much to Hoffmann’s consternation.

As we return, in the final scene, to the bar, this staging does not stop at Hoffmann’s stupor and Stella’s departure on the arm of the evil Lindorf; Hoffmann finally recognizes her shallowness and the scene shifts to the Palais Garnier stage, in which all of his fantastic creations, heroines, jesters, and villains alike, stand in a semi-circle behind him, as Nicklausse transforms one last time into the Muse she truly is, encouraging Hoffmann to turn all his pain and suffering into art, as only he can. The added length more than makes up for itself in revealing the show’s theme and purpose.  Bravo to Jenkins and his creative team!

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