Jacques Offenbach’s beloved opera, inspired by the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann, is a challenging piece of theatre to produce. Telling three different stories of failed love, in a way it is a trilogy of operas, each of them in a different genre.
The first, in which the poet Hoffman falls for a mechanical doll is often played as a comedy. The second is a melodrama in the tradition of La Traviata in which the tragic heroine always dies. And the third is a horror story as Hoffman falls under the spell of a courtesan who steals his reflection from a mirror. In the prologue, the three women are presented as different facets of Stella, Hoffman’s current love object, an opera singer who doesn’t get to sing throughout the opera.
Director and designer Stefano Poda chose to give a similar look and tone to all the acts and created a recurring motif of doll-like women trapped inside display boxes. These are pushed around the stage in an effort to add a bit of dynamism to the static images. But it still feels monotonic and any sense of drama is sucked out of the production.
All acts have the same background set. It looks like an archive of ancient pieces of Greek statues of mostly women and horses, but also less defined images. In the prologue, which originally takes place in a tavern, the back wall opens to reveal a set of Hoffman’s flat. And as the men on stage (students, according to the synopsis) sing a drinking song, the flat starts revolving while Hoffman climbs the walls and the ceiling – just like Fred Astaire’s famous dance in the musical Royal Wedding (1951). This acrobatic feat by American tenor Charles Workman is very impressive at first, but after a while it become repetitive. The symbolic meaning, I guess, is Hoffman’s inner turmoil due to his drinking and his disastrous affairs with the four women whose names are written on the wheel encompassing the set of the apartment.
Olympia, the object of his desire in the first act, is designed as a mannequin in a box, surrounded by more mannequins in more boxes. When Hoffman claims that he and the mannequin are twin souls, in modern eyes this might be deciphered as a criticism of men’s objectification of women, while pretending there is a deeper connection. On opening night, Israeli soprano Hila Fahima gave a superb rendition of Olympia’s famous chanson “Les oiseaux dans la charmille”, one of the best I’ve ever heard. It was virtuosic and gorgeous and funny. But she did the whole performance stuck inside the box, and at some point I wished she had been given the chance to step out of it.
Hoffman’s second love story is about the singer Antonia who is told by both her father and Hoffman that she has to stop singing as it is killing her. This too can be read as a comment on men not allowing women to have their own voice. Encouraged by her dead mother, Antonia (the great Alla Vasilevitsky) chooses to realize herself as an artist, and dies singing. Here, too, she is surrounded by static women in boxes, this time standing in for famous dead opera divas such as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland whose names appear on the boxes. However, they are all dressed the same and have the same reddish wigs which deny them their uniqueness as outstanding human beings and artists.
In the third act, supposedly taking place in Venice, Giulietta (Elinor Sohn), was surrounded by boxes containing famous courtesans such as Violetta from La Traviata, Émile Zola’s Nana and Aspasia of Ancient Greece. By now the motif of boxed women has become monotonous, especially since the lighting throughout the opera was quite dim. There was, however, one striking scene in which a dramatic lighting added to the movement of two groups of singers on the stage. Plot-wise, though, the scene was incomprehensible.
Musically, the performance was mostly a success. In the role of the poet, Workman was not only athletic, but also presented a beautiful virile tenor (he did have a couple of lapses trying to reach the higher notes). Italian Baritone Vito Priante was also commanding in the role of Hoffman’s nemesis. Anat Czarny was not as strong as the muse, and the awaited “Barcarolle” didn’t leave much of an impression. The orchestra, conducted by Dan Ettinger, was precise and energetic. And I’ll always remember Fahima’s glorious Olympia.