Tales of Genius

Classic Arts Features   Tales of Genius
Music director Graeme Jenkins and the Dallas Opera go in search of the real Tales of Hoffmann. The company's production of the Offenbach opera runs through December 10.

As you settle into your seat to experience one of the most popular of all French operas, I want to make you aware of a true behind-the-scenes dilemma: How does one present Offenbach's final opera and his one, bona fide masterpiece? When a composer lives to see the premiere of his own work‹whether it's Beethoven enduring the painful premiere of Fidelio, or Verdi casting his critical eye upon Aida, or Wagner hammering home his vision of The Ring‹we, with the benefit of hindsight, can refer to the completed original manuscript as well as the revisions that generally follow. However, with Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, interpreters like me are faced with a problem of major proportions.

Composer Jacques Offenbach died in Paris on October 5, 1880, during rehearsals for this piece. Repeated bouts of gout in a man of frail health finally prompted a fatal heart attack. Hoffmann, a grand "opera fantastique" completed by Ernest Guiraud (a New Orleans-born French composer), did not see the light of day until it premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris four months after Offenbach's death. You might be inclined to ask, "What is an opera fantastique?" Well, remember the macabre masterpiece by Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique? The opera and symphony are constructed on essentially the same premise: how an artist's uncontrolled fantasies cripple his search for genuine happiness.

In each of Hoffmann's affairs, self-destructive tendencies invariably lead to disaster. Blinded by desire, Hoffmann is shattered when the magnificent Olympia turns out to be a mechanical doll; Giulietta, the courtesan, escapes Hoffmann's embrace on the canals‹but only after draining his psyche dry. The helpless author is unable to save even the delicate Antonia, fated to perish from the strain on her heart as she sings her lovely "swan song." And finally, Stella, the diva, abandons Hoffmann, the drunkard, for a rich and clever suitor.

Throughout Offenbach's career, he composed with two basic ideals in mind: creating cohesive dramatic tension coupled with (and complemented by) orchestral scoring that would not overwhelm the human voice. In the century and a quarter since this opera premiered, it's been tackled by thousands of performers in hundreds of ways. Painstaking personal research has led to the edition you will experience here on The Dallas Opera stage; an edition I am convinced accurately reflects Offenbach's original vision.

One thing more: When first conceived, the commission from the near-bankrupt Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique called for an opera with composed recitatives. This changed once the commission moved to the Opéra-Comique. There, the composer was asked to provide an opera replete with arias, ensembles, and spoken dialogue‹similar to the style of Bizet's Carmen of 1876.

When one examines the score, it's easy to see where the lighter textures of Offenbach are overtaken by the heavier orchestrations of Guiraud. To the extent possible, I have discarded these add-ons. Also, I firmly believe both Hoffmann and Carmen are much stronger pieces when delivered with dialogue rather than recitative, as was the performing practice at that most family-oriented of Parisian theaters: the Opéra-Comique. So, for the majority of this performance, you can expect to enjoy pure Offenbach, with two notable exceptions: In 1904, a momentous production of Hoffmann opened in Monte Carlo. This resulted in additions to the piece of which Offenbach never dreamed, yet are now considered inseparable from his masterpiece. First is the delicate aria: "Scintille, diamant" adapted from Offenbach's 1875 work, Voyage to the Moon; and secondly, the fabulous sextet with added chorus based upon the famous Barcarolle theme. Indeed, the Barcarolle theme itself is borrowed from another Offenbach work, Les fées du Rhin.

So, who was Jacques Offenbach? In the year 1800, his father, Isaac Juda Eberst, left the town of Offenbach-am-Main and settled in the cosmopolitan city of Cologne, Germany. Initially known as "Der Offenbacher" and later as "Offenbach" after a Napoleonic edict ordered Jews to alter their family names, this bookbinder, music teacher, and composer became the cantor of Cologne's Jewish Synagogue, which was destroyed in the carnage of the Second World War. From its ashes arose the new Cologne Opera House, where Dallas Opera General Director Karen Stone and I have both served.

Jacob (later Jacques) Offenbach was born June 20, 1819, the seventh of ten children. He completed his studies in Paris and played for a time in the Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique. By 1858, he had scored a great success with his Orphée aux enfers. La belle Hélène, La vie parisienne, and La Grande-Duchess de Gérolstein soon followed. Following the 1870 siege of Paris, Offenbach's fortunes took a decided downturn. America provided badly needed cash by hosting a year-long concert tour‹a total of 40 concerts in New York and Philadelphia. Returning to Paris in 1877, Offenbach focused his attentions on his final work, based on an 1851 play about German poet and literary critic E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann was born in 1776 and died in 1822. The multi-talented Hoffmann was a major influence on the Romantic movement in literature, yet he was also a proficient composer, painter, theatrical producer, and designer. Musically speaking, his passion was opera and Hoffmann believed Mozart's Don Giovanni to be "the opera of all operas."

Using several tales by Hoffmann, the 1851 play written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (the same Barbier Offenbach chose as his librettist) chose as its subject matter the decline of Hoffmann, as perceived through a series of misplaced loves.

The version you will experience in Dallas will reflect what audiences heard at the premiere: one soprano singing four roles and a single baritone singing all the villains: Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto, and Dr. Miracle. For the three principals, this is an enormous undertaking: easy to produce in a recording studio, but spare a thought for the soprano tonight as she negotiates the incredible high-flying coloratura of Olympia to the great soaring long-lines of Antonia, all the while negotiating the physical and theatrical demands of the production‹and all those costume changes‹it really is a tour de force.

Unlike at the premiere, the roles of Nicklausse and the Muse will not be divided between a mezzo and an actress but sung throughout, and in order to strengthen what I find to be the shortest act, I have inserted the violin aria, "Vois sous l'archet fremissant."

What should the audience pay particular attention to as you experience this performance? Crucially, the contrasting colors of each act. In the prologue, the rowdy chorus "Luther est un brave homme" has exactly the right "clink" to evoke the sound of pewter steins colliding in a Bavarian Bierkeller (a sound familiar to anyone who has ever attended the present-day Oktoberfest).

In the first act, Olympia's aria, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille," has a subtle French lilt; the interlacing of flute and harp has its heart in the House of Chanel. As I previously mentioned, the famous Barcarolle was first heard in another opera. Even so, shut your eyes for a moment and you will feel the slow movement of the gondola gliding upon the waters.

My favorite moment, by far, is the "Antonia" Act and the arrival of the young singer's mother offstage. Here, Offenbach surpasses himself in a swaying 12/8 rhythm. The strings underscore the voice with brilliantly subtle chromatic harmonies. To heighten the tension, the bass notes slowly rise. However, the genius comes on the reprise in a trick that Broadway composers have made their own: If a tune is good, repeat it and then modulate and introduce more voices. Poor Antonia, under strict "doctor's orders" not to sing, is so inspired by the sound of her dead mother's voice that she is unable to resist the emotional pull. The girl sings, her lovely voice ascending into the stratosphere, to a top C, the highest note of her role. It is a killer of a moment, in every sense, as Antonia drops dead, the final note of her aria still reverberating through the house.

This is opera at its best!

Yet, in the awestruck silence, we are left to ponder how a somewhat provincial German Jew‹an immigrant who later converted to Catholicism‹was able to write the most unabashedly secular "French" music we have (at least, until the arrival of Debussy, Ravel, and Messaien). The sheer wit of the Can-Can in Orpheus typifies the style of Les Folies Bergeres and was to provide the background music to that relaxed artistic environment and exuberant nightlife we know so well‹from those infamous bohemians immortalized by Puccini!

Graeme Jenkins is Music Director of The Dallas Opera.

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