Judgment at Nuremberg: Love and Art’s Verdict

Jacques Offenbach’s four-hour The Tales of Hoffmann is simply one of the greatest operatic extravaganzas I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, from opera houses at Manhattan’s Metropolitan to Zurich to Croatia to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, etc. The sprawling story (libretto by Jules Barbier, based on his and Michel Carre’s play, derived from three stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a Prussian Romantic author of fantasy and Gothic horror), accompanied by a soaring score, explores the love life of the poet Hoffmann (Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo), as he embarks on an odyssey seeking the golden fleece of the ideal woman. He’s a sort of 19th century Henry Miller off on a sensuous sojourn that takes the gallivanting wordsmith across Europe with destinations vividly brought to life by costumer/scenic designer Giovanni Agostinucci’s sets, exquisitely wrought without peer.


In the Prologue, we are swept away to Nuremberg, at the taproom of Luther’s Tavern, with gigantic wooden barrels containing alcoholic ambrosia inside of Martin Luther’s Wine Cellar (ironically, this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation). There is much merriment as Hoffmann and a throng of students suck ’em up and I thought the evening’s entertainment would present opera bouffe. Despite the presence of the Muse of Poetry (Virginian mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay), who disguises herself as the bard’s friend Nicklausse, blithely prodded on by the assembled drunkards, the sobriety-challenged Hoffmann tells his trio of tales about his various love interests.


Right before the aud’s orbs the set changes and we are transported to a weirdly decorated Physician’s Drawing Room as Act I commences with a story that seemed to confirm my impression that we were in for a lighthearted comic opera. Hoffmann is smitten by the blonde Olympia (South Korean soprano So Young Park, who proved to be an audience favorite and alternates in the role with Minnesotan Liv Redpath on April 6 and 9), “daughter” of the scientist Spalanzani (Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel).


But in a plot twist straight out of contemporary sci fi, Olympia turns out to be a mechanical doll constructed by the mad scientist Coppelius (French bass-baritone Nicolas Teste, who has a multiple role playing the Four Villains). At first, Hoffmann is so sexually obsessed he doesn’t notice Olympia is not flesh and blood. Thus, Act I of this opera which premiered in 1881, derived from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1817 short story The Sandman, depicts a theme which is quite current, with mortals romancing androids in the feature film Ex Machina and in the HBO and AMC television series Westworld and Humans. So E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ETA - estimated time of arrival - was 200 years before his time, with his fable about man meeting machine.


Following the first of two intermissions, ACT II’s curtain lifted to reveal a schlamassel’s palazzo belonging to the schlemiel Schlemil (baritone Texan Daniel Armstrong) at Venice, which is rather gloriously, ingeniously recreated, including gondolas and water sparkling on the Grand Canal. The music introducing this palace of pleasures is exceedingly lovely, probably the most mellifluous passage in this entire opera-palooza. Here, amidst exotic beauties, Hoffmann woos the courtesan Giulietta (Maine’s mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich), wowing her with a “scintilla, diamante” - but the high class harlot only has eyes for this sparkling diamond. Giulietta may have that certain je ne sais quoi? va-va-va-voom sensuality, but she’s a mercenary inamorata who lusts after the trappings of wealth and power, breaking the heart of the poet spellbound by her sexual allure.


After the second intermission, Act III’s action moves to a garret in Munich, where the ailing Antonia (German soprano Diana Damrau, who also plays Stella) is reunited with Hoffmann. Antonia has an angelic voice, but her warbling comes at great cost. Another mad scientist, the shady Dr. Miracle (the testy Teste), conspires and tragedy befalls Hoffmann yet again, in what has become increasingly clear is no mere opera bouffe.


Proving that the past is prologue, the epilogue returns us to the tavern where Hoffmann first regaled his inebriated listeners with tales of love gone terribly wrong, off the skids. What began, seemingly, so lightheartedly, has devolved into a philosophical excursion into the nature of romance - and art. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] Hoffmann’s Muse returns and escorts him off to what appears to be Mount Olympus, will-illumined by lighting designer Alan Burrett. The Muse of Poetry dispenses her wisdom: Hoffmann’s experiences in the depths can ennoble him to soar to the heights, if he doesn’t succumb to the demon rum and the heartbreak that causes his excessive drinking.


It made me think of those artistes whose own imbibing of the fruit of the vine or partaking of drugs or tumultuous private lives or the endless distractions of celebrity or inner demons derailed their artistic careers, if not their very lives. Truman Capote never completed a novel after the publication of his 1966 bestseller In Cold Blood and died in 1984 five days shy of his sixtieth birthday. In his relentless pursuit of superstardom, Andy Warhol likewise never lived to see 60. After turning his back on the theater and an unparalleled cinematic outpouring, Marlon Brando squandered much of his talent. And so on - artistes need to balance their private and creative lives.


With a great eye, Marta Domingo nimbly directs this splendid opera, while with an equally great ear our beloved Placido Domingo conducts with verve. And no, wisenheimer, Placido didn’t get this gig due to nepotism - he knows Offenbach’s work well, having portrayed Hoffmann often, starting back in 1965 (see clips at: http://placidodomingo.com/us-en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=581&catid=27&Itemid=149). I hope you’ll forgive me, dear reader, but while enjoying this operatic tour de force, I rather smugly mused that partaking of and appreciating this overwhelming artistry helps make one a truly cultured human being.


The Tales of Hoffmann will be performed April 6 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, April 9 at 2:00 p.m., at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: https://www.laopera.org/season/16-17-season/tales-of-hoffmann/.