The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s easy but wrong to underestimate Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” It is literally fantastic but NOT light. It will be performed by Madison Opera on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Part 2 of 2.

April 13, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the historic Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature music for baroque and modern flute and strings  with Iva Ugrcic, Thalia Combs, Biffa Kwok, Joshua Dierigner, Mikko Rankin Utevsky, Andrew Briggs and Satoko Hayami. They will play music by Georg Philipp Telemann, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Salvatore Sciarrino and Andre Jolivet.

By Jacob Stockinger

As The Ear posted yesterday, the Madison Opera will present Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” this weekend.

The production will be performed twice in Overture Hall of the Overture Center: on Friday at 8 p.m.; and on 
Sunday at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in French with projected English translations

Tickets are $18-$129. Student and group discounts are available. Tickets can be purchased at the Overture Box Office, 201 State St., Madison, and by calling (608) 258-4141 or visiting www.madisonopera.org

For more information, here is a link to yesterday’s post with a plot synopsis and information about the cast:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/classical-music-jacques-offenbachs-fantastical-masterpiece-the-tales-of-hoffmann-will-be-performed-by-madison-opera-performs-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-here-is-part/

Today, The Ear asked the same questions to the two main figures in the production: Artistic and music director John DeMain and guest stage director Kristine McIntyre.

Here are their answers:

JOHN DeMAIN (below)

DeMainOpera

“Tales of Hoffmann” has the reputation of being a “lighter” opera. How justified and accurate is that opinion in your view, and what do you think explains it?

Hoffmann is Offenbach’s grand opus. I’ve never thought of this work as a light opera. To me, light opera has spoken dialogue and the music is distinctly lighter in nature, like operetta.

Where the confusion lies here is, for me, no different than with George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Both composers use popular resources, at times, to tell the story.

Hoffmann is a serious themed piece. Two people are literally murdered, and the mechanical doll is also destroyed. Hoffmann’s soul is condemned to hell, as his pursuit of love is rebuffed at every term. The devil is present throughout as well.

What Hoffmann is, however, is highly theatrical. Magic is present, as well as the supernatural. It is at times ghoulish and macabre, but always entertaining. The Olympia scene with party guests and a mechanical doll — at bottom in a YouTube video — is the lightest scene in nature, as Hoffmann is being duped at a social gathering.

Move into Antonia, and from the beginning the music is serious and profound with two thrilling trios. Giulietta, which has always been the sketchiest act, because of missing music and an incomplete libretto, nevertheless is thrillingly operatic in scope.

Hoffmann is very much like Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata in design, particularly in the progression of Hoffmann’s loves, as embodied in the sopranos who sings all four roles. Olympia is coloratura, just like Violetta in the first act singing “Sempre libera.” Antonia is lyric, corresponding to Violetta in the second act, and Giulietta is the most dramatic, just as in the third act of the Verdi.

The beautiful final ensemble at the end of the Epilogue is also not the stuff of light opera. Offenbach, as a composer, is true to his musical style, but achieves the greatest depth of his writing in this wonderful grand opera.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 1

What would you like the public to know about the opera and about the musical aspects of the Madison Opera production including the singers, the orchestra and the score?

The orchestra highlights the drama at every given turn, literally changing tempos on a dime. Leitmotifs are used throughout the piece.

The music is wonderfully melodic, with the entire cast having beautiful arias, duets and trios. It has long been a favorite opera of mine because it so accurately portrays the story in vivid and unmistakable musical terms.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

KRISTINE MCINTYRE (below)

Kristine McIntyre 2016

Jacques Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” has the reputation of being a “lighter” opera? How justified and accurate is that opinion in your view, and what do you think explains it?

Well, “lighter” compared to what? Than Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking or Leos Janacek’s Jenufa, certainly. But it’s not a comedy either, and certainly any of the classic operatic comedies, such as Gioacchino Rossini‘s The Barber of Seville, feels perfectly frothy in comparison.

I think this is an easy opera to underestimate because the piece is so theatrical in its storytelling. But Offenbach (below) is actually exploring some very dark themes, as was E.T.A. Hoffmann before him.

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original tales are fantastical and highly imaginative, but they are also vivid and insightful examinations of human psychology. He exposes our darkest fears and how that darkness intrudes into our everyday lives and our attempts to find love and happiness. I think E.T.A. Hoffmann is particularly insightful at revealing the fragility of his male protagonists and their insecurities where women and love are concerned.

The Olympia act, for instance, is really about a young man’s fear that he has been deceived, that he’s been made a fool of — that he can’t trust the girl he loves and doesn’t know what’s real or what’s not.

The story on which it is based, “The Sandman,” is even more horrifying than Offenbach’s setting: the young man simply can’t get over having fallen in love with the automaton, believes his very human fiancée is actually a machine, tries to kill her and eventually commits suicide by throwing himself from a balcony.

Jacques Offenbach seated

So one should not confuse creativity in storytelling with a lack of seriousness. There is a great tradition, stretching back to the early 19th century, of writers of fantastical literature and science fiction asking some of the hardest questions about human nature and providing some of the most compelling insights.

That tradition now extends to film and we’ve spent some time in rehearsal talking about how movies like Blade Runner and Ex Machina explore some of the same issues.

Offenbach is a man of the theater and gives us music that is just as compelling and theatrical as the tales themselves. This music is fun to stage and listen to, but while Offenbach is entertaining us with his delightful French melodies, his main character, Hoffmann, has his heart broken three times, causes the death of his fiancée, becomes an alcoholic, murders a rival and loses his soul. So the opera definitely has its tragic side.

And we shouldn’t forget that Offenbach balances the fantasy of the tales with the framework of the Prologue and Epilogue and the completely recognizable, human story of Hoffmann’s doomed relationship with his girlfriend Stella. They’ve had a fight and he’s terrified of losing her. In the tales, he is actually telling us Stella’s story over and over again as he tries to make sense of what has happened.

The opera could easily end in tragedy and despair, but instead Offenbach offers us a glass of champagne and a balm for the human condition. (Below is the Roaring 20s set.)

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 3

What would you like the public to know about the opera and about the theatrical aspects of the Madison Opera production including acting, costumes, sets, etc.?

Almost everyone in our cast is doing their roles for the first time, so we’re having a great time in rehearsal exploring every moment of the piece.

This will be a very high-energy, inventive and creative telling of the opera. The production is updated to the 1920s, which is great fun – beautiful costumes and lots of wonderful inspiration from art and cinema of the period.

For instance, we’ve been looking at the paintings of Otto Dix, which capture the élan and decadence of the 1920s, and classic horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu to find the darker side of things for the Antonia act. It’s a very rich period visually and offers us a great deal of style as well as the chance to make something that feels very alive and fresh.

I think it will be very entertaining and also very moving.

Madison Opera Hoffmann set 2

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