Tales to Treat

Bayo and Vargas make Hoffmann an HGO hit

Lured by the promise of a diamond, Giulietta agrees to steal Hoffmann's reflection. (Children will love these conceits, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass.) The poet of course succumbs to her seductive charms. Bayo and Vargas are quite moving in this curious duet that builds intensely as Hoffmann is presented with two, three, then four mirrors on a pedestal as he desperately searches for his stolen reflection. Moved by a death wish, Hoffmann has allowed Giulietta to that part of him that represents his soul and life. One would think, after he's gone and given it all away -- after he looks in the mirror and sees nothing -- that he'd at least get the girl. But no. Even after slaying her former suitor in a duel, the lady of the evening is seen rowing away in in her gondola, arms entwined in Dappertutto's.

Giulietta's upscale Venetian bordello is breathtaking in the staged world of HGO. Amber street lamps contrast brightly with red pillows and bedclothes in the middle of the stage. There are a couple of spurious touches in minor walk-ons, though. Giulietta's topless, bow-tied male clients lounging on her bed look hackneyed. The garter-strapped prostitutes stationed in second-floor galleries have become so commonplace in movies, they belong amid the cliches of the film Pretty Baby or television. The stock figure of the humpback who climbs into Giulietta's departing gondola is so overdone it looks misplaced from an Addams Family set.

In the story's conclusion, Stella's promised rendezvous with Hoffmann never comes to pass. When he is too drunk to look up at her, the villain Lindorf takes the opportunity to whisk her away. Before her exit, we get a meaningful exchange between the muse and Hoffmann. She makes her plea for him to consider loving her in the wake of all his losses, suggesting he should seek a more profound union between poet and muse and cease giving in to his earthly passions. Immersed in his drunken stupor, Hoffmann delights in the idea of offering himself up to her. But before she can get any further, he falls asleep.

There are enough playfully realistic scenes like this to undergird the dreamscapes and conceits so irresistible to the French, both in opera and poetry. But this opera is never overly serious about its fascination with dreams. The songs and Vargas's outstanding performance continually imply that Hoffmann is the typical red-blooded artist poisoned by drink and women. HGO's Hoffmann comes off quite nicely in its promotion of that very French of dogmas -- boys will be boys, always and ever governed by their passions.

Houston Grand Opera's production of The Tales of Hoffmann runs through November 15 at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, Texas at Smith, 227-ARTS. Tickets $20-$175.

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