Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, May 14, 2005


Between the tragedies of Racine and the comedies of Moliere in French and Sheridan in English in the late 17th century, and the late-19th-century work of Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, and Strindberg, I can think of only one one non-musical play in the standard repertory, Beaumarchais’ “The Marriage of Figaro,” an anti-feudal farce from pre-Revolutionary France, which was the sequel to his “The Barber of Seville”; these plays became the basis of operas by Mozart and Rossini. Playwrights continued to write and actors act new plays in that 200-year dry spell, but the lurid sensibilities and ornate language especially of the tragedies have tended to leave contemporary audiences flummoxed.

Which is one of 19th century opera’s big problems.

My beloved spouse and I went to see a friend of a friend, Dean Elzinga, sing the roles of the Four Villains in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at Seattle Opera last night. We had not been to the new tax-dollar-built hall named after the matriarch of a local family of cell-phone moguls, who put up some of the cost. The hall was gorgeous and the acoustics wonderful; it was a pleasurable place to be during the two 25-minute intermissions. More important, the music was lovely, sometimes thrillingly so; the cast was solid and in some instances stellar (Julianne Gearhart as Olympia especially stood out for loveliness of tone combined with power); the chorus was terrific, the orchestra good; the costumes were fabulous and the sets spectacular.

But the plot. No. Or, mostly no. The framing device, setting the opera in the lobby of an opera hall, was clever. The opening scene, in which Hoffmann’s guardian angel summons a chorus of beer and wine bottles to seduce Hoffmann into drunkenness so he would alienate his new love interest and be free to follow her, his muse, into genius and poetry -- well, the plot was stupid, but the chorus of beer and wine bottles was genuinely funny and wonderfully staged.

The mixture of comedy, Romantic notions of the Torment of the Artist, and gothic evil magic chicanery didn’t work for me, and it irks me that the Seattle Opera is promoting “Tales of Hoffmann” as ideal for first-time opera-goers. When one character wants to kill another, and resorts to magic to do it, and you have no idea what is motivating the murder -- well, you lose me. It just feels like a slapdash vehicle for the music. Offenbach’s score has gorgeous peaks and is never dull or bland, but apart from the peaks it is rarely emotionally compelling; maybe the problem is that he doesn’t musically do justice to the unmotivated Evil in the Tales. The plot that Tchaikovsky’s collaborators adapted from Hoffmann to make “The Nutcracker” isn’t any better, but Offenbach didn’t have Tchaikovsky’s fount of peak melodies. Few people have.

Still, it was sung spectacularly. “Solid,” I called the cast above, but to be solid in a 2900-seat hall, singing over an orchestra and sometimes a chorus, and to be heard in the back without amplification, takes spectacular skills. I’m going to carefully check the plot before I decide to go again; I’m more hopeful for the comic operas. The ticket price daunts me -- more than 40 bucks for a cheap seat.

I’m also going to look for opportunities to hear such singing in chamber settings. It’s really something.

One question about the production haunts me. Did they intend the alcoholic title character to have the same hair-style and open-collar look as famous drinker Christopher Hitchens? Because if they did, it worked.
Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?