Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Tales That Keep On Telling

It's been a few years since I've attended a performance at the Wolf Trap Barns out in the other Vienna, the Virginia one just past the Capital Beltway. But Friday night was the premiere of the Wolf Trap Opera Company's production of The Tales of Hoffmann, with three performances to follow within the next week. Suffice it to say that for its amazingly lively and enduring music, plus the overall fun associated with Offenbach's grandest opera--mostly he wrote lighter fare for the 1870s Paris equivalent of the Broadway musical stage--Tales remains one of my true favorites, even if it's name weren't close to mine own.

This company features young, up-and-coming singers, all of whom were marvelous. Before the performance, the producer gave a pre-show talk, explaining about the fairly well-known history of how companies keep re-inventing this opera. Offenbach needed a few years to round up backers and finally got them--Opera-Comique in Paris and a major theatre in Vienna--but he died in 1880 before the opera opened.

Since he was operating in those times much as modern Broadway composers--taking numbers out of his trunk and inserting them, even if used in previous work, where deemed appropriate--there is no authoritative version sanctioned by the composer. Letters and other written items have appeared during the next century, so many that a major revision of the score has been almost completed. This advanced version is what Wolf Trap used and it shows major improvements from the tradition Choudens version.

Wisely, the new version keeps all the numbers that Offenbach picked up from his earlier work. These include the most famous tune in the opera, the Barcarolle, and the wonderful bass aria, Scintille Diamant, as well as the peculiar septet at the end of the Venice act--where the six characters are joined on stage by the chorus to make up the septet.

The character of the Muse, who here decides to disguise herself as Hoffmann's companion, Nicklausse, has also been enlarged and especially at the end, made far more meaningful. Hoffmann actually decides not to leave the beer hall with his anamorata, the opera diva Stella, because he realizes that his three fateful loves in the opera are combined in Stella, to his detriment. Instead, he accepts the Muse who has made clear to him that his destiny is as a poet to commit his experience to verse and history. It's hard not to feel this is a better end for the opera that the old one of seeing him pass out drunk just before Stella appears so that her departure with the villain is perfunctory.

All the singers were fine, and quite tall, including Hoffmann, whom I've been used to seeing as a more diminutive type. The soprano who played the largely trouser role of Nicklausse and the Muse, Catherine Martin, was lovely in both voice and appearance. The villains, played as is the tradition by the same bass-baritone, were well-performed, save for one missed note in Scintille.

Other changes are less momentous. Schlemil loses his aria in this version as well as his shadow. And the modest production by the Wolf Trap company lacked some of the accoutrements of the major houses--no entrance or departure by Giuletta in a gondola, for example. Spalaanzani's workshop was not adorned from top to bottom with wheezing machines of all kinds.

But these singers, this version, and the pleasant house made for a charming evening with one of the most enjoyable operas in the repertoire. There are two more performances next Thursday and Saturday, and Friday night they will present an evening of E. T. A. Hoffmann's own music, as befits the man who was novelist, short story writer, poet, and composer in addition to being the hapless romantic chronicled by this irresistible opera.

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