Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Love and Tears" (on Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann)

love and tears

by Douglas Messerli

Jules Barbier (libretto, based on his and Michel Carré’s play, based on tales by E.T.A. Hoffman), Jacques Offenbach (music), Bartlett Sher (director), Barbara Willis Sweete (director) Le contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) / 2015 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Jacques Offenbach’s operatic repertory favorite, Le contes d’Hoffmann is a true mish-mash of musical and theatrical offerings: comic opera numbers such as "Il était une fois à la cour d'Eisenach” (a number that might have been at home in the Broadway musical Cabaret, replacing that musical’s number “Messkite”); drinking songs in the manner of Verdi and Wagner; comic novelty numbers such as Olympia’s “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” and the servant Frantz’s insistence on his singing, dancing talent, “Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre”; all mixed up with stunning operatic arias of love and longing such as "C’est un chanson d’amour."

    Divided into three distinct "tales," Offenbach’s work functions as a baggy monster, with the vague and often fragile interconnective link insisting that the stories all represent the poet’s failed loves ; yet productions have, at times, lopped off an act or, at other times, added another. The opera, moreover, sometimes effortlessly, at other times rather clumsily, shifts between realism, fantasy, and literary autobiography while delving into the grotesque. Particularly under Bartlett Sher’s Metropolitan Opera direction, the work seems nearly always teetering on the edge of a Kafka-like nightmare tinged with a Berlin-cabaret sexuality that borders also on camp (Sher insists his sources were Austrian, but they seem much closer, to my way of thinking, to the Berlin of the 1920s.).

     For all this, nonetheless, the Le contes d’Hoffmann survives, perhaps simply because it does encompass so much that other operas of the day might have thrown overboard. Whether conceiving as woman as an innocent, an artiste, or as a courtesan, what Offenbach’s Hoffmann reveals, in the end, is that no fulfilling liaison can be consummated as long as the writer-artist is wed to his art. Time and again Hoffmann loses his mind, at no time more evident than when he puts on Coppélius’ rose-colored glasses to become enchanted with the wind-up doll Olympia (not so very different, indeed, from Lubitsch’s “doll” I described his film of that name—except that in Hoffmann’s fiction, she has no human equivalent, despite the fact that the real human, Erin Morley, brilliantly imitates her robotic actions.

     Hoffmann (the charming and energetic Vittorio Grigolo) falls in love with a fellow artist, the singer Antonia (Hibla Gerzmava), only to discover that her very profession may result in her death. Like a would-be controlling fiancée (today we would describe him as unliberated sexist), Hoffmann is forced to demand, as has her father, Crespel (David Pittsinger), that she give up her career, a choice that can only leave her in such frustration that she is almost immediately tempted to challenge the men in her life by channeling the voice of her mother, a former prima donna inflicted with the same illness. Certainly Antonia can no more give up her role as an artist than can Hoffmann.
     And finally, after nearly giving up on love, the writer seeks love in the arms of a wicked courtesan, Giulietta (Christine Rice) only to nearly lose his soul. Hoffmann’s absurd love does end in the death of Giulietta’s equally lied-to boyfriend, Schlémil (David Crawford). And even though, in killing her lover, he obtains the key to her boudoir, he is saved by the fact that she literally leaves him in the lurch, gondola-ing off without him. As the police arrive, he is, once more, saved by the only one who truly loves him—and whom he, unknowingly, truly loves, his male friend Niklausse, secretly his "female" muse. If the device of the male friend/female muse offers a slightly homoerotic tinge to the opera, in the end it truly doesn’t matter,  since the muse, obviously, is an aspect of his own being, just as the three women with whom he falls in love are all elements of the one woman imagines as his divine partner, the Mozart diva, Stella, who literally ignores him, and whom he, in is drunken state does not even recognize. Ultimately, the opera suggests that true artists can only find satisfaction in themselves—along with copious amounts of beer and wine!

      Interestingly, Sher has skewered his production away from the simplistic Hoffmann, who, despite his fascinating tales, remains a vague actor in the stories of his own life. For Sher, the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann is merely a stand-in for Offenbach himself. And, from this perspective, the opera does indeed reveal a great deal about the situation of the actual artist, a German Jew, well loved by French society, but obviously made to also feel always as an outsider. The several Jewish references (at times almost anti-Semitic, particularly in the legend of Kleinzach) signify the kind of dual reality that the composer faced, wherein at one moment he laughs with his audience as he tells the story, but by work’s end tragically becomes the mocked figure himself, taking on the tallit almost as a protective garment against the taunts of his failures in love and life. 
     It also helps to clarify the inexplicable evil of the four-headed villain of the piece, who appears as Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Daspertutto (all played by the noted baritone Thomas Hampson). Why, we ask are these villains, so similar in some respects, all out to steal, murder, and abuse Hoffmann’s would-be loved ones. There is no explanation of course for such evil, such seemingly in-bred hate—except perhaps for the successful insider’s detestation of all who represent something different and new to his culture. Such hate clearly leads what Nicklausse / the Muse observes as a "loss of love and tears," but it will never be able to entirely destroy true art.

Los Angeles, February 1, 2015
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2015).

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