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Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Morris and Polenzani, stars of Lyric's Hoffmann
© Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago 2011
Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its 2011–12 season with a Contes d'Hoffmann notable for its pointed musicality, stunning visuals and a marvelous performance by its leading tenor. In a milestone role debut, Matthew Polenzani scored a triumph as Hoffmann's titular tortured poet, offering an intelligently conceived, internally focused characterization in support of his brilliant singing. The tenor — a 1997 graduate of Lyric Opera's Center for American Artists — sang with all the sweetness and dynamic control we have come to expect of him. His stamina was remarkable as he sailed through the grueling trio in the Antonia act, with a vast reserve of voice remaining for "Comme des astres radieux!"
Erin Wall's exceptional Antonia emerged strongest of Hoffmann's three inamorata; the C-sharp concluding the "Chère enfant" trio was a trifle thin, but she nailed the excruciatingly difficult, two-octave descent from high D in the "Pour conjurer" interlude, and her soprano easily filled the vast theater with gleaming sound. Anna Christy was a very funny Olympia — characterized as a kind of preening, nineteenth-century prom queen from hell — and her timbre had an appealing shimmer, some vagaries of pitch notwithstanding. Alyson Cambridge was an aptly sultry Giulietta. It is no use pretending that the bass-baritone of James Morris, now sixty-four, is all it once was in the roles of the four villains, but the evening found him in excellent late-career form, scary as ever, with a sustained, dead-center conclusion to Dapertutto's "Scintille, diamant," transposed to D.
Emily Fons offered a superb Nicklausse and did an exquisite job with the violin aria. Rodell Rosel worked a bit too hard at the comedy of the four servants but made an adorable thing of Frantz's little arietta, "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre." David Cangelosi's energetic Spalanzani and Christian Van Horn's sonorous Crespel rounded out the principals, while Lyric debutantes Jamie Barton, Bernard Holcomb and Joseph Lim did well by the Mother's Voice, Nathanaël and Schlémil, respectively.
Although this new Hoffmann production was only recently unveiled at the Teatro Real de Madrid, Lyric's regular subscribers will recognize the beautiful glass-and-steel Ezio Frigerio sets — based on London's 1851 Crystal Palace — from Lyric's two previous Hoffmanns, in 1976 and 1982. Frigerio's set designs have been skillfully recreated and are now graced by Franca Squarciapino's costumes. The kaleidoscopic lighting design, by Vinicio Cheli, was deftly executed by Jason Brown. The ambience of this 2011 Hoffmann is similar to Lyric's earlier incarnations, but the technology is much advanced: in the Olympia act, the comely automaton now zips delightfully about via a remote-controlled platform concealed by her dress, eliminating the need for tracks onstage. Stéphane Roche freshly reimagined Nicolas Joël's original direction; Act I was a little slow on its feet, but matters soon progressed swimmingly.
The performance essentially utilized the Choudens edition we are not supposed to like anymore (but secretly do), with the Antonia act placed second, as Offenbach intended. We lost the second verses of Hoffmann's duets with Antonia and Giulietta, and of his brindisi, but that marvelous violin aria was brought in for Nicklausse.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume has this music in his genes, and it showed in his propulsive reading of the score; the strings did some gorgeous things for him in the "Pour conjurer le danger" trio. The chorus was first rate. It will be interesting to see where Lyric's new general director, Anthony Freud, will steer the company in future seasons, but this opening-night Hoffmann gave Freud an effective and admirable welcome to his new post in Chicago.
MARK THOMAS KETTERSON
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