Love's Bitch, Poet Enough to Admit It: Tales of Hoffman, Opening Night @ Lyric Opera
Opening night of the 2011 season. FINALLY. Especially as I was deprived of avant garde opera earlier this week.
I'm always well and truly ready for opening night by the time it rolls around, but especially so this year as it was a brand new (to me) production of an opera I know little about. My pre-show nerding out was somewhat disrupted by the fact that someone's coat and program were ON MY SEAT when I arrived early with the full intention of completely digesting the pompous program before curtain.
Unwilling to compound the problem by sitting in someone else's seat, I just sort of hung around in the lobby until I couldn't stand it anymore about 10 minutes before curtain. Of course when the owner of the things showed up, it turned out to be a very nice woman who had mistaken a 3 for a 1 because she didn't have her reading glasses, and then I felt like a jerk for being so huffy. (I wasn't huffy to her, I was just huffy on the inside, but I have an overdeveloped guilt-generating machine.)
In any case, I only just had time to skim the synopsis before the lights went to half. And stayed at half for, like, 10 minutes while people filtered in veeeerrryyy slowly and in chattily, which returned me to the brink of huffiness. (This is partly post-traumatic stress from a couple weeks ago when The Paramount Theatre production of My Fair Lady used the overture for old school purposes and people talked all the way through it. I admit that this is my baggage.)
But I need not have feared: Butts were in seats (or outside the doors) when the curtain rose on James Morris in his Ringmaster Ned get up in front of yet another curtain painted like oversized circus ads, featuring the "Mistress of the Writhing Monsters" front and center. It's not that Morris does not rock the tall boots as Lindorf, and it's not that I don't appreciate an Eve metaphor as much as the next gal, but this was the moment of the design that I didn't really "get." I loved the look and feel, but it's really out of step with everything else in a really tight, wonderful design, and even in a work that is pastiche within pastiche . . . I don't get it.
Of course, I hadn't SEEN the rest of the design at this point, so I was enjoying the old timey circus goodness and tall boots on their own merits, when a very terrible thing happened: James Morris sang . . . badly. It was downright creaky, no depth. Unpleasant. Now, as mentioned above, I am not terribly familiar with Tales of Hoffman. So, thought I, perhaps "Dans les rôles d'amoureux langoureux" is just an ugly piece not to my taste. Well, I've just watched my Welsh bass-baritone boyfriend, Bryn Terfel, sing it, and let's just say that's not the problem. I am very, very fond of James Morris, so this weirded me out a great deal. Fortunately, whatever was going on seemed confined to the opening scene.
The circus curtain rises on Luther's tavern and Ezio Frigerio's gorgeous, GORGEOUS set. It's framed by a metal skeleton that suggests a mammoth clock face just settling into the earth. At center stage, the top half of the "clock" forms a second proscenium, stained glass alternating with metallic ribs. The upstage wall is translucent wall of more delicately traced arches converging on a rose window. Beautiful. Plus! Barbie townhouse elevators at stage right and left.
These are all static elements of the set that are accentuated or downplayed as appropriate by Jason Brown's amazing lighting design. The tale-within-a-play-within-a-fable nature of the opera calls for a fluid, but easily understood, sense of time and space. Brown's lighting answers the call and keeps an already-long opera moving along.
The moveable pieces are equally wonderful. Luther's tavern is established with bright brass wagon-top still that buildings on Frigerio's steampunk cathedral aesthetic. Something inside one of the still's elements turns merrily all the while, suggesting both a calliope (hmm . . . am I going to have to rethink my position on the circus theme?) and Modern Times.
If I'm picking on the circus thing, I should probably wonder why there's a train in Spalanzani's living room. But the answer is obvious: There is a train in Spalanzani's living because (a) it's an awesomely cold, industrial thing that is still somehow rodent-like and (b) it sets off James Morris's superfly steampunk get up to its greatest advantage.
Train or no train Spalanzani doesn't know how good he has it, because dude, Crespel's living room is totally haunted. Haunted with incredibly creepy self-playing instruments (to say nothing of James Morris's steampunk pony cart—which, RUDE driving that into a man's living room, particularly after having [probably] killed his wife and [definitely] plotting to kill his daughter), his late wife, who may or may not be stuck inside a pipe organ (it might have been intended as a window, but the frosted vertical lines read pipe organ). Act III: Magnificently creepy gondolas, candelabras (nerve wracking in juxtaposition to a large chorus), and extremely well-managed fog.
Cannot say enough good things about the set design. Lovely to look at, excellent framing device (literally and metaphorically), and easy to block a large chorus on it.
I don't know who to credit with two other notable marvels: The design for Olympia, the automaton, and the ghostly instruments. The self-playing instruments only merit second mention in that their motion is simpler and more repetitive. But it's still really, REALLY freakin' cool.
But Olympia? Olympia glides—and I mean literally glides—hither and yon around the stage while every blessed cast member (or near enough) is on stage. Hell, she WALTZES with Hoffman at one point. She's clearly on some kind of rolling platform, but how it moves I have absolutely no idea. Stupdendous.
Of course the technically amazing movement is only part of what amazes about Olympia. Her make up and costume are wonderfully false and terrible (also, kudos to whomever affixed that wig!). And Anna Christy is quite simply amazing. Her physicality is the perfect mix of photo op princess and golem. And, of course, her voice is sublime.
In this production, Lyric deviates slightly from the usual (if there is any usual for an opera whose composer died long before orchestration was finished) in casting 4 different principals to play Hoffman's loves. I have no beef with this. As pompous essayist Roger Pines notes, "Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are radically different (how remarkable that any one singer has ever been able to take on all three in one evening)." Also, I got to see both Anna Christy and Erin Wall, as well as Alyson Cambridge for the first time.
Wall bears the burden of pathos with Antonia, and she bears it beautifully, both in her arias and singing with Matthew Polenzani. Dramatically, she plays the material—up to and including her death from vaguest villainy—for all its worth. As for Cambridge, I really enjoyed her voice (and isn't that Barcarolle delicious), but didn't get much of a sense of her dramatically.
Other than the split casting for the love interests, the rest of the production is fairly typical: Morris plays all four villains (deliciously); Rodell Rosel plays the servants (I didn't much care for the overly hammy Harpo Marx schtick as Cochenille in Act I, but I loved deaf, dumb, and Frantz); and Nicklausse is a trouser role. A trouser role played BRILLIANTLY by Emily Fons. Her comic timing is flawless, her voice is divine. I am so unendingly grateful that Lyric decided to insert her Act II aria, which is to die for.
Perhaps the best part of Fons' performance is her pairing with Matthew Polenzani, who plays Hoffman so very earnestly and without an iota of irony. He relies on her rendition of Nicklausse to play the perfectly over-the-top exasperation with him just so, rendering any self-awareness on his part completely unnecessary.
I love what this take on the role does for the ending, which could easily descend into pat-yet-awkward opera ending #532. The Muse of Poetry, also played by Fons (and I wish—oh, how I wish!—they'd dispensed with the awkward 11th hour costume change; it's FUNNIER if it's Nicklausse [or the muse, if you prefer] all along!), shows the folly inherent in the pursuit of love and urges him, instead, to dedicate himself to her. But what lends brilliance to Hoffman's tales—what makes him a poet—is his ability to fall in love, wholly and sincerely, every time. Polenzani's Hoffman is wrecked and ruined at the end, a slow, gratifying burn, but you wouldn't be surprised to find tomorrow to be another day, another declaration of undying love.
SUCH a satisfying opening night.
HOLD THE PHONE! I'm editing to add that I cannot believe I neglected to mention David Cangelosi and Christian Van Horn! Cangelosi is always amazing, but he's particularly satisfying as the mad scientist. Christian Van Horn is just right in how he plays both the comedy with Frantz and the fear and eventual heartbreak over Antonia. The trio in Act II with Morris, Polenzani, and Van Horn . . . I don't have words for it.