Tales to Treat

In the opening act of Houston Grand Opera's The Tales of Hoffmann, raucous patrons of Luther's German tavern urge the wine-filled poet Hoffmann to sing about a legendary monster called Kleinzach. Inspired by his muse, the lovelorn writer momentarily forgets his sorrows and begins an odd ditty about a splayfooted, black-nosed monster who creaks from head to toe. Before describing the ogre's face, Hoffmann lapses into reverie, tenderly recalling the charming face and azure eyes of some feminine beauty from his past. When his soused listeners voice their confusion, Hoffmann comes out of his dream. Eventually, he is moved to tell three enchanting tales of love gone awry while Stella, his current lady, sings Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in the opera house next door.

British director Ian Judge's HGO revival of composer Jacques Offenbach's last, most influential, albeit unfinished opera supplies equal measures of such fairy-tale fantasy through stunning arias that kept the opening night crowd brimming with bravos. Judge faithfully restores Offenbach's intent to have one soprano play all four leading ladies as well as his preferred ordering of the tales. Despite a few moments of idle pandering to TV tastes, the show's pastiche of late nineteenth-century/Generation X costumes and sets works well, rarely degenerating into capricious deviations from the century-old setting just for the sake of change.

Offenbach's opera in French is based on Jules Barbier's libretto. It in turn was inspired by three fantasies by German writer/composer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Offenbach and Barbier's Hoffmann collapses all three Hoffmann stories inside a framing tale that introduces the poet and his faithful muse, who does her best to guide the unlucky sot. From the moment she descends from her aerial, bubble-festooned chariot, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton is lovely as the feminine muse who metamorphoses into Hoffmann's schoolboy chum Nicklausse. Singing the "trouser" role (female cast as male), Clayton's warnings to Hoffmann, in the person of Nicklausse, ring in clear, brilliant tones. Throughout the show her lofty, androgynous presence harkens back to the majesty of shape-shifting Athena, lusty Odysseus's sage advisor.

Poet Hoffmann (Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas) devotes one tale each to the mistresses who spell his doom: the artist (Olympia), young maiden (Antonia), and courtesan (Giulietta). Spanish soprano Maria Bayo's facile handling of all three roles is a tour de force, beginning with the eye-catching Olympia whom the poet gazes at through a pair of spectacles he buys from an inventor-friend of her father, Coppelius. Olympia's father, Spalanzani, is reluctant at first to present his daughter to the poet, but eventually he allows Hoffmann to gaze at her in a large, transparent closet. Unbeknownst to Hoffmann, she's a doll, not a woman.

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When Olympia is finally encouraged to sing, Bayo gives a virtuoso imitation of a mechanical doll whose bird-like murmurs are too perfect to be human. Bayo's Olympia is an exquisite little wind-up automaton. Twice she fills the air with perfect soprano staccatos, faltering while head and arms fall flaccid as her spring runs down in the middle of a song. In response, the subtle range of Vargas's tenor beautifully captures the silliness and pathos of a man smitten with a mechanical object. Not until she breaks into pieces does he realize his precious Olympia is "dead ... or was never alive," as Nicklausse had tried to tell him.

Olympia's bombshell allure is enhanced by the four young escorts flanking her in contemporary coats and ties. Here they look a bit more like Academy Awards evening escorts incongruously surrounding Olympia's more vintage-looking sequined formal. But their rolling out of the red carpet for her is a nice touch of panache, if a bit cliche.

The middle tale of Antonia is the darkest of all three, about a 16-year-old consumptive maiden whose father, Crespel, forbids her to sing to prevent her health from worsening. While Offenbach creates a palpable villain in all three tales, none is more evil than Dr. Miracle, who is bent on curing Antonia in his own way. While Hoffmann sides with Crespel, pledging his future to Antonia, he fails to convince her that singing is not more important than love or life itself.

Finally, Miracle's seductive appeal to her earthly vanity destroys her. In an amazing 10-minute ensemble, bass-baritone Dean Peterson's Miracle goads Antonia to sing by conjuring the spirit of her dead mother who always wanted her to use her native gifts. The ghost of Antonia's mother appears on stage, and all three sing intermittently and with increasing intensity. Meanwhile, Miracle vigorously strums the violin which symbolizes the captivated girl. By the end of the ensemble, Antonia sings herself to death. And again Hoffmann loses the girl.

Director Judge and set designer Tim Goodchild nicely evoke the Gothic doom of Antonia's fate through dark muraled walls and a dimly lit stage.

The story of Giulietta's betrayal begins with the famed "Barcarolle" number for two voices, Bayo's soprano and Nicklausse's mezzo-soprano. The setting is a Venetian palace, a brilliant scene featuring the gallery that overlooks the Grand Canal. Courtesan Giulietta slowly approaches the palace in her gondola. Her scantily-clad guests recline on pillows, waiting for the night to begin. Before Hoffmann arrives on the scene, the lady and her suitor Dappertutto are plotting his demise.

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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