`Tales of Hoffman' is a fantastical version of reality

Baltimore Opera's production premieres

Stage

Theater / Music / Dance

April 28, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Looking for an escape -- from reality? The Baltimore Opera Company has just the ticket.

Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) is not called an "opera fantastique" for nothing.

Fantastical events run all through the plot of a beer-soaked poet who keeps finding problematic objects of his affection -- a temporarily life-like mechanical doll in Berlin; a sickly singer drawn into a fatal song in Munich; a courtesan who steals the poet's reflection, not just his heart, in Venice.

Based on stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the early 19th-century's precursor to Stephen King, the opera presents a world that is rarely what it seems, a world ever-haunted by diabolic dangers and pathetic failings of human nature. By today's standards, there's nothing really scary here, but there is a fascinating strangeness. Not to mention sonic power -- these yarns are set to very engaging music.

How that music reached the stage is another tale all by itself.

The composer died in 1880 before he could complete the opera, leaving a pile of manuscripts and possibilities that continue to intrigue scholars.

The Baltimore production offers a compromise. It will contain some of the once-standard edition of the score published by the French firm Choudens in 1907, incorporating material added by others after Offenbach's death. And there will be some music from a revelatory version by Fritz Oeser that appeared in 1977, based on freshly uncovered Offenbach manuscripts and offering a reordering of the acts to reflect the composer's original wishes.

(Yet another edition, prepared by Michael Kaye, appeared in the early 1990s, shaking things up with still more discoveries of long-lost sketches.)

A few things about the opera's history are clear. Offenbach didn't want to be known solely for the bubbly operettas that made him famous (his use of the can-can in some of them made him an international sensation). He saw a perfect vehicle for a full-scale opera in an 1850s play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre based not just on some eerie Hoffmann stories, but on the real Hoffmann's life. And what a life.

Born in 1776, Hoffmann moved through several professions -- law clerk, theater director, composer, conductor and even music critic -- while also finding time, usually in a drunken state at his favorite pubs, to write his occult-tinged stories. Those stories would go on to inspire some of Schumann's most brilliant piano works and one of the world's best loved ballets, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.

The Barbier/Carre play that caught Offenbach's attention contained all the ingredients for a compelling night of music and theater. We'll never know exactly what the final form of the opera would have been had the composer lived longer, but it says a lot that The Tales of Hoffmann can hold the stage no matter which edition of the score is used.

An imaginative production renders mute any debate over textual details because the essentials of the plot remain the same in all versions.

The title character's weakness for drink and women gets him in trouble every time. A mysterious nemesis stalks his every move, appearing in different guises to thwart Hoffmann's romantic plans from one city to the next. Each woman Hoffmann pursues is, in some way, the same woman. And each loss the poet suffers from those unhappy affairs is part of the same sustained assault on his idealism, pride and, ultimately, soul.

Hoffmann finds himself, if he ever truly does, only when the last of the blinders is finally pulled from his eyes.

Offenbach makes that journey of discovery -- in the fullest sense of the word -- fantastic.

The Baltimore Opera production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann features Gerard Powers in the title role (replacing an indisposed Roberto Aronica), Valeria Esposito as Olympia, Victoria Livengood as Giulietta (replacing an indisposed Renata Lamanda), Antonia Cifrone as Antonia and Alain Fondary as the four villains.

Christian Badea is conductor and stage director.

"The Tales of Hoffmann" is at Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., 8:15 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. May 6, 3 p.m. May 8. Tickets are $37 to $132. Call 410-727-6000 or visit www.baltimoreopera.com.

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