This week The Canadian Opera Company premiered Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. So far this season I have enjoyed the COC’s presentations of Tosca and Love From Afar. I invited my good friend Meaghan as her birthday was the following day, an excellent way to celebrate. When I told her what Opera we would be seeing I was even more intrigued at her response. She informed me that she had seen the show in Vienna when she was 16 years old traveling in a school choir. She had purchased the cheapest seats in the theatre and apparently could only see a tiny corner of the stage if she dangerously pulled her body over the banister for a peak. Her memories of the show were minimal: references to an eyeball and the corner of a stage (with the odd foot or hand making an appearance). I couldn’t help but laugh when we sat down in our seats and she looked up at the surtitles and asked, “oh can we actually read what they are saying?” I was so pleased that she would have a proper opportunity to see The Tales of Hoffmann in all its glory with a storyline she could follow and a stage with many corners!
The opera follows the poet Hoffmann, a writer of fantastical fables, as he spins dark reminiscences of his failed attempts to find love. The show starts with a beautiful miniature apartment sitting in the centre of the stage and taking up only about a third of the open space. Hoffmann sits at a desk drinking from an open bottle. The stage explodes with a boisterous bar crowd where booze and beauties are celebrated with cheers. It is here that the story really begins. Hoffmann’s colourful bar chat focuses on whimsical storytelling regarding his three loves. These beauties are organized into acts which are noted by city in which they met: Olympia in Paris, Antonia and Munich and Giulietta in Venice.
From the Director:
Hoffmann’s look at each of his three loves, through the romantic lens of wild and dark imaginings, draws each of the women into the Romantic ideal and holds them to account for their flaws: Olympia’s beauty is broken; Antonia’s artistic pursuit is thwarted by death; and, Giulietta is damned for her hedonistic pleasures.
Hoffmann seeks perfection yet neglects to recognize his own failings, and he pursues a fantasy which could be a reality if he’d only open his eyes. As with the Romantics, his inspirations and his demons come from both his environment and from the spark of genius within. By escaping into a world of drunken fantasy, his obsession for the ideal woman grows – and as it does, he loses his sense of reality. The struggles between his art, his life and his addictions take their toll.
The Tales of Hoffmann was the first opera that had me laughing. The entire audience was amused by the inebriated fantasy on stage. Hoffmann now sits with me as my favorite opera to date as it mixes gorgeous costuming, fantastical sets and romance with a nice kick of comedy. With all of these elements and character quirkiness the show often reminded me of classic Dickens and Tim Burton dreams. Pieces of the production (especially Olympia) are often morbid and obtuse while keeping the provocative and sexually suggestive theme of the play in tact.
The singers were phenomenal, each with an authoritative voice which had the crowd happily clapping through the ebb and flow of the performance. Hoffmann is a great success for the Canadian Opera Company and a treat for Toronto. Sit yourself down for an evening of comedy which celebrates wine, women and the bacchanal.
Production Photo Credits: Michael Cooper and Chris Hutcheson