Happy audiences from Augsburg to Zanzibar have been savoring Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” for about 100 years.
They have sighed for the brooding romantic hero as he tells his macabre tales and courts a cruel fate in four contrasting guises of the eternal woman. The masses have hummed along gleefully with the infernal Barcarolle, cheered the stratospheric pyrotechnics of the Doll Song, succumbed to the macho magnetism of the poet’s diabolical nemeses.
No one cared that the standard version of the opera was a corruption of the composer’s intentions. Offenbach, after all, had died prior to the premiere in 1881. Various helping hands had completed the opera for him, making liberal additions, subtractions
In recent decades, however, numerous scholars, musicians and directors--from Fritz Oeser to Walter Felsenstein to Richard Bonynge to Antonio de Almeida--have pieced together what they regarded as an authentic approximation of the original. Using historical materials long lost or conveniently ignored, they restored music, reshuffled the sequence of events, removed dubious encrustations, refocused the action, clarified and maybe even purified the basic style.
The intentions, in all cases, were admirable. Nevertheless, one problem lingered: There can be no such thing as a definitive “Hoffmann.” What Offenbach left is a vast amount of unsorted material--more of it, no doubt, than one needs or wants for an effective performance. Had the composer lived to oversee the premiere, he certainly would have made his own changes. Unhappily for posterity, he never told anyone what, among his papers, was gospel and what was just a sketch.
The latest musicologist to attempt to defend “Hoffmann” from the meddling philistines is Michael Kaye. Given the advantage of manuscripts discovered just two years ago, he has constructed yet another critical edition. This one, we are assured, is really authentic.
It was this edition that the enterprising Music Center Opera staged for the opening of its season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday. It replaced the originally announced double bill of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.”
Authentic or not, it is a ponderous edition. It takes nearly four hours to perform. There are some striking unfamiliar pages in it, to be sure. There also are tedious pages, repetitious pages, vapid pages, unfelicitous pages.
Offenbach was, if nothing else, a man of the theater. Not every phrase he cranked out was a masterpiece. Even he knew that. What we may need now is a practical edition of Kaye’s critical edition.
The Music Center performance enjoyed the considerable advantage of Placido Domingo in the title role. An ungrateful churl--this one, for instance--might wish the supertenor would concentrate a little more on dreamy introspection and a little less on roof-rattling. Still, it is difficult to think of a Hoffmann who can match Domingo’s romantic ardor, his heroic ring and his theatrical poignancy.
Unfortunately, his colleagues on this occasion proved less impressive. Julia Migenes, the best of them, looked devastating as the multiple heroines and exuded irresistible sensuality without cliche. Vocally, however, she encountered some problems. She could not muster much coloratura glitter as Olympia. She seemed a bit short-winded when it came to the arching lyricism of Antonia and a bit strained in the dusky platitudes of Giulietta.
Rodney Gilfry inherited the rhetoric of the multiple villain (but not, alas, Dappertutto’s spurious aria “Scintille, diamant”). Tall and slim, he is a sensitive actor who commands an exceptionally wide-ranging lyric baritone. He cares, moreover, about such subtleties as text inflection and dynamic variety. It is not his fault that one really wants a bigger, darker, more slimy sound in this music, and, perhaps, a more sinister persona. It is not his fault that we cannot forget Norman Treigle. . . .
Stephanie Vlahos--sympathetic but vocally feeble as Nicklausse--got to sing the marvelous, long suppressed romanza in the Antonia scene but was spared the more ornate arias discovered by Almeida. That may have been merciful.
The supporting ensemble turned out to be variable. As the four servants, Michael Smith compromised charm and/or point with grotesquerie. Ken Remo, though deft as ever, reduced Spalanzani to caricature. Michael Gallup introduced a dignified Crespel, John Atkins a hysterical Schlemil, Edna Garabedian a tremulous Mother.
Nearly everyone mangled the French text, especially in the extended dialogue passages. Only Migenes seemed to have gone beyond Berlitz to prepare for this elegant challenge. Under the circumstances, it might have been wiser, and less snobbish, to use a good English translation--and forget about those distracting supertitles.
Frank Corsaro directed traffic within Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s flimsy but imaginative sets, designed long ago for Miami and borrowed last year by San Francisco. The staging did little to keep the focus sharp, the tone crisp, the narration witty and the pacing swift. It concentrated on obtrusive gimmicks: a mechanical doll who didn’t move like a doll at all, a trade-mark midget who temporarily impersonated Kleinzach and, most damaging, would-be magical mirror images that were visible only to the favored few seated smack center.
Those less favored saw the characters behind the reflections from the wrong perspective. They also saw the comings and goings of stage-hands bearing props. So much for mysterious illusions.
Richard Buckley, the relatively inexperienced conductor, either enforced speed for its own frantic sake or, when sentimentality seemed unavoidable, stretched the line beyond the breaking point. Members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a reasonable facsimile of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra followed his whims with sporadic success. In the pit, as on the stage, this was a heavy-handed “Hoffmann.”
The surprisingly small audience at the gala opening seemed more interested in the intermissions than in the opera. Still, the first-nighters mustered hearty push-button applause when the curtain finally fell.