- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

The Washington Opera has kicked off its 2001-2002 season with an astounding new production of Jacques Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" ("The Tales of Hoffmann").
This "Hoffmann" — with its dazzling cast of brilliant soloists, colorful sets and costumes and superb playing by the company's orchestra under the baton of French maestro Emanuel Villaume, ranks easily among the top 10 productions mounted under Artistic Director Placido Domingo. Underwritten by a grant from philanthropist Alberto Vilar, "Hoffmann" takes the stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Oct. 5.
Solidly in the repertoire since its 1881 Paris premiere, "Hoffmann" is an oddball favorite in the world of opera. Offenbach was like a cross between Neil Simon and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He composed and produced dozens of hit operettas that lighted up Parisian night life in the mid-19th century.
Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld," sparkling with its famously naughty "Can-Can," made him a rich man. But, through a series of misfortunes, Offenbach lost it all. In ill health and despairing of his reputation as a composer of mere trifles, he set out to produce at least a single work of substance. The resulting "The Tales of Hoffmann" is the only one of his works regularly performed today. Unfortunately, Offenbach lost his race with time and died four months before the work's triumphal Opera Comique debut.
Presented as a surrealistic frame tale spun out in a tavern by a drunken hero to an entourage of revelers, the opera is loosely based on the life of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), a popular writer of tall tales, an esteemed poet, a decent composer, an interior decorator to royalty and a painter of some note. Wine, women and a fondness for opium led to his early death. Hoffmann's stories wander seamlessly between the real and the supernatural, as if Franz Kafka were writing with "The Far Side's" Gary Larson implanted in his brain.
Offenbach's opera astutely seizes on the writer's bizarre sensibilities and unfolds as three weird tableaux starring the poet in search of his muse. Throughout, Hoffmann is tormented by the devil, disguised as a different villain in each act.
In the first act, Hoffmann (tenor Richard Leech) is tricked by mad scientist Spalanzani (tenor Corey Evan Rotz) and the evil Coppelius (bass-baritone Alan Held) into falling in love with Olympia (soprano Sumi Jo), who is really a mechanical doll. In Act 2, the hapless writer is transported to Venice, where the sinister Dapertutto (baritone C.Y. Liao) and the courtesan Giulietta (soprano Victoria Livengood) steal his image and his soul. In the third act, he watches helplessly as his beloved Antonia (soprano Andrea Rost) is lured to her death by Dr. Miracle (Alan Held once again). Each of the three women — who may or may not be real — represents attributes of the fourth, Stella (mezzo-soprano Kyle Engler), who rejects Hoffmann in the epilogue, exiting the stage with Mr. Held, this time disguised as Lindorf. Throughout his travails, the artist is supported by his friend Nicklausse (mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves), who turns out to be his redemptive muse in disguise.
To cast the same soprano as each of Hoffmann's four loves and the same bass-baritone as the famous "four villains" is popular and perhaps desirable. But the Washington Opera takes a different tack in this production and casts the best imaginable singer for each part.
Miss Jo is sensational as the singing mechanical doll, Olympia. Her spastic, wind-up movements are hilarious — but then she opens her mouth and out comes the most delicious coloratura soprano imaginable. She demonstrates a tremendous range of tone and expression rendered comical with robotic staccato passages.
Miss Livengood, in body language and with her huskier, more sensuous voice, easily becomes one with the seductress Giulietta who, in her pursuit of worldly good, conspires with the devil to steal the poet's soul for a sparkling diamond.
In her brief turn as the ill-fated Antonia, Miss Rost unveils an instrument of exquisite sensitivity, well-supported but never overpowering. Her early aria, "C'est une Chanson D'Amour Qui S'Envole" ("I Sing of Love and Its Follies") is ravishing, and her passionately moving trio with Miracle and the ghost of her mother (mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina) is one of the evening's highlights
As the faithful Nicklausse, Washington's own Miss Graves is back in top form after an uncertain outing as Dulcinee in last year's "Don Quichotte." Whether swaggering in Nicklausse's trousers or donning the robes of Hoffmann's muse, this is the Miss Graves with the honeyed voice, superb diction and regal stage presence. Yet she underplays her role in the ensemble unselfishly, contributing to the production's overall sense of humanity.
Tall, lanky and devilishly adept, Mr. Held sings with magnificent menace the roles of the three villains allocated to him. His Wagnerian baritone is well supported and in sure command throughout. His condescending Lindorf keynotes the opera with a sense of impending menace. His Coppelius is a weirdly effective charlatan running around in sunglasses, a fright wig and a vaudevillian coat full of magical eyeglasses and hanging eyeballs. His Dr. Miracle, the nastiest of them all, delights in destroying the innocent and loving Antonia. Mr. Liao, who steps in as Dapertutto, does a fine job as the fourth villain with his deep, penetrating voice, although his slight stature somehow makes him less a threat than Mr. Held.
In the title role, Mr. Leech defies superlatives. His is a tenor voice of awesome power laden with emotion, confusion and longing. From his passionate arias and duets to his last gasps in the epilogue, Mr. Leech proves himself a major talent, an American who possesses a near-European command of the stage. From Mr. Leech's first appearance to his last, his voice never sounds in the least fatigued.
Enough cannot be said about this sparkling new co-production with Russia's Mariinsky Theater and the Los Angeles Opera. Act 1, staged in the ballroom of a mad scientist, was particularly notable. Its set was a fantastic amalgam of Paul Klee's "Twittering Machine" and Terry Gilliam's cutout Monty Python cartoons, all imposed on retina-searing red and orange walls. When Hoffmann puts on Coppelius' hallucinatory glasses, these walls and their mechanical contraptions dance about. At once traditional and postmodern, the imagery is highly effective, contrasting with Act 2's cool greens, and the dark Act 3 with its glassy skylight looming eerily in the rear to unveil Miracle's hulking presence.
Marta Domingo's direction of this huge enterprise is superb. Her singers were always in a position to project maximally, and the action never was dull on opening night Sept. 8.
The barely finished original "Hoffmann" has inspired directors to fiddle with its ending through the years. In some versions, Hoffmann dies, while in others, he is left in a drunken stupor onstage. Mrs. Domingo has the muse reappear to Hoffmann after he is deserted, putting a more uplifting spin on the action that may inspire controversy. But it works.
Problems? In the prologue, the initial offstage chorus was barely audible even in the expensive seats, and the orchestra and singers were at odds on the tempo in the same stanza. But unlike many opening nights, this one had a finished air about it, and the production should only get better.

WHAT: The Washington Opera's production of "The Tales of Hoffmann," sung in French with English surtitles
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 2 p.m. tomorrow and Sept. 23; 8 p.m. Thursday and Sept. 26, and Oct. 2 and 5; 7 p.m. Sept. 29
TICKETS: $66 to $350
PHONE: 202/295-2400 or 800/876-7372

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