Story by Megan Leahy
Photography Michael Cooper
A bohemian tale has it all: love, lust, beauty and hate; it is grounded in passion and begrudgingly questions the meaning of life. It has something for everyone and can be recommended to anyone. The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach is no exception, and the Canadian Opera Company’s production is beautifully sung and thoroughly enjoyable.
Hoffmann is a poet in love with the prima donna Stella. He is tormented by the responsibility he must assume to foster this love as it clashes with the bohemian’s creed of living freely. His muse, who appears throughout the performance disguised as the poet’s most faithful companion Nicklausse, persuades him to drink to forget this love. Hoffmann remains inebriated throughout the opera as he reminisces to the audience the stories of his three great loves, each of which make up one of the three acts.
Act One is dedicated to the beautiful Olympia, a Frankenstein-like mechanical doll. Although warned by his muse, Hoffmann is blinded by rose-coloured eyeglasses sold to him by his nemesis and cannot see she is an automaton. Not until his glasses are thrown off is he brought to his senses and his love ruined. Hoffmann fell in love with Antonia for her extraordinary voice and musical talent. Sadly though, singing makes Antonia very ill and, coaxed to sing by the evil Dr. Miracle, eventually causes her demise. Finally, Giulietta never actually loved Hoffmann, but seduced him with her magic eyes to steal his reflection for his opponent Dapertutto.
We learn in the epilogue that Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta are actually all one women. They represent three facets of the prima donna: the young girl, the musician and the courtesan respectively. Each have flaws which are bolstered by the acts’ nemeses, all of whom can be interpreted as the embodiment of Hoffmann’s self destructive side.
If it sounds confusing that’s because it is, but not so much that it distracts from the enjoyment and the plot can be resolved in intermissions. Offenbach died before the opera premiered in Paris in 1881 without completing the ending so there have been various renditions since. He planned for it to be his masterpiece: a culmination of his efforts to be taken seriously as an operatic composer. Without a doubt, however, it is an opera comique. Though it sometimes delves into dark and tragic dramatic episodes, overall it is light and humourous. COC describes their version, directed by Lee Blakeley, as an “almost ‘Tim Burton-esque’ production” and throughout the production it is as though Hoffmann is observing a memory-driven fantasy world play out in front of him as he writes it crouched on the edge of the stage.
Adriana Chuchman, a soprano born in Winnipeg, stole the show with her exquisite delivery of Les oiseaux dans la charmille (“The Doll Song”) as the beautiful doll Olympia. Act two as a whole outshined the rest, with breathtaking vocals and comedy that had the audience doubled over. The acclaimed Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea, who plaid the four nemeses in the opera, and COC’s Ensemble Studio graduate mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal, as Hoffmann’s muse and Nicklausse, both deserve mention for their incredible performances. Russell Thomas, the American tenor who played Hoffmann himself, was surprisingly the only notable weakness in the opera. In a word, he lacked emotion.
The Tales of Hoffmann runs until May 14th and comes with our four out of five star recommendation. Are you under 30? The Canadian Opera Company offers discounted seats with a special promo code!