Not-so-easy pieces - Seattle Opera untwists 'Hoffmann''s tales

Jacques Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" is a fantastical opera with an equally eccentric past.

When Offenbach died before completing the opera's score, Ernest Guiraud whipped it into shape for its world première at Paris' Opéra-Comique in 1881. The score has been fiddled with multiple times since then, usually whenever more pages of Offenbach's original work surface. This tinkering is not always in the best interests of Offenbach's final opera. In the Choudens version in 1907, for example, the stories the poet Hoffmann tells about his disastrous relationships are rearranged into an order that decimates the opera's logical dramatic progression.

The end result of the twisted evolution of "The Tales of Hoffmann" is that today's opera companies aren't comfortable relying on any one version, instead creating their own particular blends of the three basic editions. Seattle Opera is following suit with its new production of this transmogrifying opera, in which the young poet Hoffmann tells a group of fellow drinkers three often fantastical and humorous stories about his failed love affairs.

Conductor Dean Williamson used the Choudens version as a starting point, stripping it of some added material to allow the original music of Offenbach and Guiraud to shine, and adjusting it in places to reflect the 1977 Oeser variation. Seattle Opera's variation restores the narrative logic by reorganizing the opera's acts into the sequence Offenbach intended. By giving the Muse an aria in the Prologue in which she explains what she's up to, the Seattle Opera edition sidesteps the confusion present in other variations over who she is and why she is portraying the male student Nicklausse.

On opening night last Saturday, director Chris Alexander sustained the coherence of the Seattle Opera edition with nuance, finely tuned humor and special effects, from eerily creeping fog to dancing, glow-in-the-dark bottles of alcohol. Alexander exhibited the same brisk pacing and deft harmonizing between comedy and drama he displayed in last season's "Ariadne auf Naxos."

Sets, lighting, costumes and a few marionettes collaborate to fortify the production's alloy of reality and fantasy. By not restricting his arresting sets to any one time period - the Olympia scene has a futuristic quality, while the ornate opera house is straight out of an earlier era - and providing surprises like hidden doors through which the villain can unexpectedly ooze, Robert A. Dahlstrom heightens the sense of the fantastic. Marie-Theresa Cramer does the same with her strikingly fanciful costumes: The Muse wears a gown that suggests a cross between Greta Garbo and a Greek statue, and Olympia's metallic look is suggestive of the early sci-fi movie "Metropolis." Robert Wierzel's adventurous lighting deftly signals the shifts between reality and fantasy. The marionettes designed by Rob D'Arc spotlight the villain's machinations to bring about Hoffmann's downfall in Act III.

The title role is one for which Vinson Cole, who portrayed Hoffmann on opening night, is rightfully famous. Cole's Hoffmann was bigger than life, in his theatrically tinged gestures and his warm caramel legato. In contrast, on Sunday, John Uhlenhopp was a far darker Hoffmann. With his heroic tenor, Uhlenhopp's voice, though not as lyrical as Cole's, was more passionately expressive in its roughness. Both tenors did justice to the long, tiring role and its high B notes.

All four villains were sung by bass-baritone John Relyea in the Saturday cast and Dean Elzinga on Sunday. Relyea commanded the stage with his snakelike menace and imposing voice, easily nailing the devilishly high G-sharp in his riveting rendition of "Scintille, diamant." Although not as dominating as Relyea, Elzinga still did an admirable job.

On Saturday, Helene Schneiderman's Muse effortlessly stepped into the posture and gestures of a young man. Her unwavering dedication to saving Hoffmann from inappropriate women was reflected in her facile voice, whether parodying Olympia's singing or pleading with the poet. Linda Pavelka was fine as the Muse in the Sunday cast, although less focused and dynamic than Schneiderman.

Sometimes a single soprano sings the three heroine roles, a thorny proposition since they require different styles. Giulietta, for example, is too low for most sopranos. Seattle Opera wisely cast a different singer in each role. With their robotic movements and perilously lovely voices, Harolyn Blackwell on Saturday and Julianne Gearhart on Sunday were showstoppers as Olympia, the mechanical doll. Heather Parker in the Sunday cast was perhaps even more affecting than Marie Plette on Saturday as Antonia, the singer who will die if she sings. In her Seattle Opera debut as Giulietta, mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera was a fascinating temptress.

Notable among the smaller roles were tenor Leodigario del Rosario, whose striking voice shone as Nathanael; Michael Todd Simpson as Hermann; Steven Cole as a droll Spalanzani; Arthur Woodley as Antonia's anguished father Crespel; and Ann-Katrin Naidu as Antonia's captivating mother. A master of disguise, Doug Jones was unrecognizable as he rotated among four characters.

Dean Williamson's conducting balanced the drama and comedy in the score, keeping the singers and the orchestra light on their feet. Rehearsed by Beth Kirchhoff, the chorus' well-crafted passages subtly underscored the central characters' emotions.

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is the former editor of the News.[[In-content Ad]]