"Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann)," is the pinnacle of Jacques Offenbach's vast career, by the 19th-century fabulist poet E.T.A Hoffmann. After 116 delightfully shallow but singable comic operettas, Offenbach spent his last years on a genuine masterwork of serious grand opera.
On opening night on Oct. 12, the small stage of Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre came alive with a remarkably balanced cast of excellent voices and a most imaginative setting. A series of moving projections took us on a tour of the four locations (Nuremberg, Paris, Munich and Venice) where Hoffmann's alcohol-sozzled imagination met the four loves of his life. And where he was outwitted each time by a Mephistopheles-like adversary (Counselor Lindorf). Fortunately, his muse, a sort of fairy godmother, brought him back from despair; the ceaseless struggle between self-destruction and artistic creativity was decided in favor of the latter.
Jose Luis Moscovich, West Bay Opera's general director and conductor, has found and honed a brilliant cast headed by a trio of singers who took on the demanding roles of four diverse characters as the four fated love affairs came crashing down on Hoffmann, sung with great brio by dramatic tenor Christopher Bengochea. The craftily satanic lawyer Lindorf was masterfully presented by bass-baritone Robert Stafford, who then was transfixed into a fiendish inventor; the evil Dr. Miracle; and finally a devilish captain.
Soprano Rochelle Bard sang all four female lovers with velvety floating tones. She was a robotic wind-up doll as Olympia, and also sang Antonia, the tragic singer who must die when she sings too much; the courtesan Giulietta, who drives Hoffmann to murder a rival; and the one real-life love, Stella the opera diva.
Mezzo Betany Coffland sang the pants role of Nicklausse, alternately a classic muse figure and a student sidekick of Hoffmann's. Her magical vocal flights along with an athleticism brought the difficult role to life.
Others in the cast giving outstanding performances included veteran bass Carlos Aguilar as Crespel, the desperately protective father of Antonia. Martin Bell, as the innkeeper Luther and also the murdered Schlemiel, showed a stirring baritone instrument, while Michael Desnoyers was a convincing Spalanzani, the tinkerer who put Olympia together. Trey Costerisan masterfully handled three grotesque lesser roles of a valet, an aide and a comic bumbler.
Director Ragnar Conde moved his forces seamlessly as they danced and maneuvered the confines of the small stage. Jean-Francois Revon also deserves accolades for the set and video design.
As conductor, Moscovich proved adept at smoothly bringing along the West Bay orchestra through the extreme difficulties of a score with music of uncompromising precision and frequent tempo changes. At the curtain, the opening-night audience rose in cheers and exited humming wonderful melodies.
Over the past 130 years, critics and musicologists have debated what "Tales of Hoffmann" is really all about. There are theories about its resemblance to Faust and the devil. Others prefer the idea that the poet was seeing three strikingly different personalities in his varied fantasy lovers: the innocent (Olympia), the sensuous (Antonia), and the libertine (Giulietta). Others point to the conflict-ridden, emotional roller coaster as just a rousing good opera.
But above all, this is a singers' vehicle. There are the vivacious drinking songs, and Stafford's many great low-register arias, including the showpiece "Scintille diamant," where as the devilish captain he presents Giulietta with a dazzling ring that can steal a man's reflection and his soul. Most famous of all the tunes is the barcarolle "Belle nuit, o nuit," the infectious song sung by Bard.
Toward the end of his life, Offenbach wrote, "I have one terrible, incorrigible vice, that of working all the time and certainly I shall die with a melody at the end of my pen ..." And for that every opera lover is eternally grateful.
Info: Remaining performances are at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$75. Go to http://wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999.