The Grim Reaper got French composer Jacques Offenbach before he finished his grand opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. Offenbach finished the prologue and one act. He left only a piano sketch of the rest. That hasn't stopped hundreds of opera companies from coming up with their own versions in the 98 years since Tales' Paris debut. But I doubt any previous incarnation of this very popular opera even vaguely resembled the Fellini-meets-Bugs Bunny-meets-Busby Berkeley extravaganza that opened Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' season this past Saturday night.
The opera brings to life a trio of short stories from the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann, who died of a tasty combination of syphilis and alcoholism, described himself as "...what school principals, parsons, uncles and aunts call dissolute." As a Renaissance man of the Romantic era, Hoffmann played and composed music, drew famously nasty caricatures and wrote psychedelically grotesque fiction. The prose creations, which often starred Hoffmann himself as the main character, have inspired other surrealist outsiders, from the equally absinthe-drenched Edgar Allan Poe to Franz Kafka. Hoffmann is often cited as Sigmund Freud's favorite fiction writer; either Freud or Kafka would have had a field day with what Opera Theatre director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and set/costume designer André Barbe did with his tales last Saturday.
The three stories are allegories that span the arc of Hoffmann's moral decline. In them, a demonic incarnation deludes him into abandoning his muse for a series of lovers who prove increasingly decadent and self-serving. This sounds dark, and it's usually portrayed in phantasmagoric style. Doucet and Barbe, though, have significantly lightened the first half of the opera. In fact, they've turned the first act into a macabre cartoon in which the soulless robotic chanteuse who seduces the protagonist becomes a mechanical sex doll right out of Toontown's ACME Products Catalog. The string of dancing mechanical women, who look like a flock of animated Electroluxes, are a feast for the eyes but teeter on the edge of self-parody.
They fall over that edge in the second act, during the anguished death scene of Hoffmann's next "perfect" love, Antonia. As her mother calls down from heaven to her stricken daughter, the backdrop parts to reveal a towering puppet of Mom operated by the Clones of Dr. Miracle, Act Two's evil personification. Though the spectacle briefly undermines the drama and steals the thunder from a pair of stunning performances by Ailyn Pérez (as Antonia) and Susan Shafer (Mom's heavenly ghost), the production rights itself in time for the third act, in which Giulietta (Pérez again), the debauched courtesan (read: high-class hooker), finally and symbolically steals Hoffmann's soul by making off with his reflection. Which, of course, follows a chorus of Giulietta's fellow tarts, clad in corsets and French bloomers, and their johns, dancing gaily in top hats, tails and striped boxer shorts.
This is opera, where great performances conquer all. Soprano Pérez handles four roles, each of which requires a different vocal coloration, spectacularly: the singing robot Olympia, sweet young Antonia, the courtesan Giulietta and the diva Stella. Pérez is magnificent; her voice is supple and pure, her vocal portrayals of the very different characters elegantly drawn. Likewise, bass Kirk Eichelberger plays four diverse villains with smoothly evil authority. The alternately drunk, sober, love-besotted, bereft and, finally, victorious Hoffmann is sung by Garrett Sorenson, whose full, clear tenor, wrings out every tune. The supporting cast is also uniformly good.
One of Opera Theatre's great strengths is its willingness to take risks. A depth of talent and a dedication to quality allow the company to try things other opera companies would never dream of. This production of The Tales of Hoffmann, while somewhat dubiously conceived and a little goofy, maintains great charm and a certain odd naiveté. It's an incredibly fun and unique night of theater, and you'll never see its like again.