Reviewed by Judy Richter
Direction, design and vocalism combine to make the San Francisco Opera's new production of Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann the standout to date among this season's offerings at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Set designer Gerard Howland sets the tone for the audience right away with an upsweeping sheet of parchment covering the raked thrust stage and part of the left side. Balancing that line is a giant quill pen angling to the right and trailing blood onto the parchment. This setting remains in place throughout the opera. A few set pieces and symbolic adornments define each act.
Production director Christopher Alden uses the space well. While some other directors have tried to spread the action across all of the auditorium's extensive playing areas, Alden has been more judicious, especially with the catwalk that spans the back of the stage just below the elevated area where the orchestra sits. Because he uses it sparingly, any action that does take place there becomes more dramatic.
The first character seen there is Stella (Victoria Morgan), the diva who is the current love interest of the title character, a poet given to excesses in love and drink. She gracefully walks from left to right, bowing to her adoring audience and scattering roses. Such staging says that here is a woman who is used to being the center of attention, the object of adulation. To Hoffmann she represents an ideal.
Even though Stella is a non-speaking role, in Morgan's hands she is eloquent. Her experience as a former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet and now as principal choreographer for the Opera makes her an ideal choice for the role. Morgan also is credited as movement assistant in this production.
Waiting for her to complete her performance in the theater next door, Hoffmann entertains his friends in a tavern by telling them stories of three women whom he has previously loved. He is accompanied through these adventures by his Muse, who disguises herself as his friend Nicklausse.
Making her auspicious U.S. debut in this role is Rumanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose, a young singer who has already gained favorable notice in leading roles throughout Europe. With her flowing lyricism, intelligent musicality and gracious stage presence, she's sure to be in demand in American houses, too. Certainly she would be welcome back in San Francisco, especially when the Opera is back in the War Memorial Opera House. Its superior acoustics would probably help her lower notes project better.
The demanding title role is filled by American tenor Jerry Hadley. Although Hadley does well dramatically, he has a few problems with intonation. It must be said, however, that Alden's staging keeps Hadley onstage throughout the opera's 3½ hours (two intermissions), affording him little chance for a break. Thus vocal fatigue seemed to set in toward the end of the Nov. 20 performance.
Hoffmann's three lady loves are played by a trio of gifted San Francisco Opera Center alumnae. First in the spotlight is Canadian coloratura Tracy Dahl, a diminutive woman with a scintillating voice, who plays Olympia. As she did in 1987, when she sang the role opposite Placido Domingo, Dahl captivates the audience with her flawless runs and trills, her sparkling high notes and her expert use of dynamic variation. Since Olympia has become a signature role for her, she also has the mechanical doll's movements down pat.
Thomas J. Munn's lighting design plays a major role in the success of this act. When Hoffmann dons rose-colored glasses to see Olympia as a real woman, Munn floods the stage in pink light. When Hoffmann removes his glasses and Olympia winds down, the lights turn white as projections of turning gears are seen on the stage.
Another hallmark of this act is the dolls that dot the playing area. They're somewhat distracting if someone accidentally brushes against one and knocks it over, but they play a major role in the destruction that ends the act.
Maria Bjørnson's costume designs (the program credits Zack Brown for additional costumes) deserve special mention here. The chorus wears handsome black and white outfits that complement the scenic and directorial concept in this act. The stunning blue velvet dress worn by Stella in the Prologue and the voluptuous red dress worn by Giulietta in Act 3 also are noteworthy.
American soprano Patricia Racette as Antonia, a gifted singer, is next in the lineup of Hoffmann's beloveds. While Olympia represented mindlessness, Antonia represents purity. She and Hoffmann seem to have a meeting of the minds as artists. However, Antonia is doomed because singing will prove fatal to here, just as it was to her mother.
Racette's voice seems to ripen into greater maturity and power with every appearance in San Francisco. Except for a slight edge to her highest notes, she displays excellent technique. She also is a good actress who knows how to use her voice and body to project emotion. She seems ready to go on to heavier roles in the soprano repertoire. Indeed, she's scheduled for Violetta in La Traviata at Santa Fe, Houston and Opéra National de Paris.
While the stage is adorned with black funeral wreaths on stands for Antonia's act, mirrors lie about for the Giulietta act, for this is when the courtesan, who represents carnal love, takes Hoffmann's reflection. Giulietta is sung with authority by American mezzo-soprano Catherine Keen, who also is a good actress. She easily negotiates the role's high tessitura. She and Donose blend beautifully in the famed Barcarolle that opens Act 3 as ripples of golden light bathe the stage.
Appearing throughout the opera is a series of four villains -- Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto -- each one a nemesis to Hoffmann and each one masterfully sung by American bass Samuel Ramey, who is no stranger to diabolical roles. Ramey's star turn with Dapertutto's Scintille, diamant is diminished, however, because the orchestra, as conducted by Steven Mercurio, lags behind him. Even though singer-conductor coordination is a problem in the Civic because they have their backs to each other, one would think that it wouldn't be too difficult for the conductor to provide supportive accompaniment in an aria like this.
The comprimario roles are well-served by French tenor Michel Sénéchal as the servant in all acts; Belgrade bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic as Luther, the tavern keeper; American tenor Robert Frank as Spalanzani, Olympia's creator; American bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Crespel, Antonia's father; American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as the embodied voice of Antonia's mother; and Canadian bass John Relyea as Schlemil, Hoffmann's rival for Giulietta's affections.
Kudos once again to Ian Robertson's excellent SFO Chorus, especially the men in the tavern scene. The SFO Orchestra also does well, considering the physical circumstances and the less-than-stellar conducting. Otherwise it's a most enjoyable production.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.