“Tales of Hoffmann”
Clowes Memorial Hall
May 2 and 4
Tales by Hoffmann, tales about Hoffmann ... It doesn’t really matter what you call it. All the terms fit Jacques Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” (1880, the year he died), his only attempt at grand opera after a lifetime producing a plethora of operettas (including “Gaité Parisienne”). Offenbach, in fact, lived only to complete his opera in vocal/piano score; others were brought in to orchestrate it, and in some cases to rearrange it. Thus Offenbach’s final work didn’t get its world premiere till 1881.
And who the hell is Hoffmann? He’s E.T.A. (Ernst Theodor Amadeus) Hoffmann: noted artisan, writer and ersatz composer who lived in Beethoven’s era (1776-1822) and who admired Mozart greatly — enough to incorporate Amadeus in his name.
After 20 years, which is about the right interval, Indianapolis Opera ended this season with its second production of “Tales,” a stage work that is at least entertaining and tuneful, if not terribly edifying. But then IO’s principal singers and the IO chorus have a most convoluted plot to work with.
First off, Hoffmann — our “hero” — starts and ends the opera without much change in his status. Sung by IO tenor mainstay Gran Wilson, Hoffmann begins getting drunk in a tavern with his “muse,” soprano Kirsten Gunlogson, standing by. A prologue, three acts and an epilogue later, Hoffmann remains drunk on a table in the tavern next to his muse. In between, the muse transforms to Hoffmann’s advisor and male companion Nicklausse (still with Gunlogson’s soprano delivery).
What otherwise happens in between is labyrinthian, a bit preposterous — and a challenge to dissect. The viewer is simply advised to enjoy the countless tunes and to go with the flow. Each of the three acts is a tale, told by Hoffman to his tavern cohorts, about himself. They involve three different female objects of Hoffman’s affection — different aspects of the same persona, we are told. They also involve his nemesis, the Devil, in four incarnations, all sung excellently by bass-baritone Arthur Woodley.
In Act 1 we find Hoffmann in an inventor’s house with his beautiful daughter Olympia — who turns out to be a mechanical doll that the inventor, Spalanzani, fashioned. She was sung by an IO newcomer, Rachele Gilmore, a startling find indeed, for she possesses the purest coloratura voice I’ve ever heard grace the Clowes Memorial stage. Skipping effortlessly into the highest reaches of the vocal compass as she moved about in jerky fashion, she became the evening’s enchantment. Though Spalanzani, sung by Douglas Perry, had to “wind her up” several times to keep her going, this action seemed lost on the company, especially Hoffmann. She is destroyed off stage at the end by Coppélius, the Devil in disguise, Hoffmann displaying her detached arm and leg with great sadness.
Act 2 finds us in a Venetian palace with Giulietta as Hoffmann’s love interest. What sets this act apart is the composer’s world famous “Barcarolle,” the tune most identifiable with Offenbach and used at the beginning and end of the act. This time Giulietta, sung by Jane Dutton, escapes on a canal with Dappertutto the magician — the evil one again. Hoffmann loses once more.
Antonia the singer is Hoffmann’s object in Act 3. Sung well by Laura Z. Pedersen, Antonia is frail to the point of risking her life by continuing to sing. But she joins Hoffmann in a duet, which exhausts her. Dr. Miracle — guess who again — comes in to examine her. She dies and Hoffmann is crestfallen. Douglas Perry reappears this time as the servant Frantz who commands the stage in an extended, well-done comic role.
In the Epilogue, we are back in the tavern where we finally see Stella, sung by Tara Replogle, who delivers about two measures of music, yet is Hoffmann’s true love, the women Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia representing an aspect of in each of the three tales. Or so we are told.
The opera is filled with short set pieces, which may be termed ditties — all getting applause: arias, duets, ensembles and a liberal use of the IO chorus, the latter especially effective. Aside from those I noted above, the solo singing was unexceptional for IO, with many of the voices excessively opulent or unevenly centered.
The set, designed by Peter Dean Beck, was comprised of the same basic structure throughout: two 90 degree archways housing a staircase leading to an upper level, with furniture and wall decor modified to fit each act. Joshua Major’s stage direction went smoothly, moving the principals and the choristers in and out with ease and dispatch. IO artistic director and conductor James Caraher led the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra with his usual aplomb.