The IU Opera Theater’s production of Offenbach’s “…Tales of Hoffmann,” “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” opens with the drunken poet Hoffmann sprawled on the stage as visions of wine and beer bottles dance about on the curtain and sing about their attractions to the choral refrain of “glug, glug.” It was a delightfully light hearted way to begin a performance that mixed comedy, dramatic theatricality, and fine singing and playing.
The frame for the opera has Hoffmann, Joshua Lindsey, telling a crowd of university students about his three past loves. Throughout, his Muse, Caryn Kerstetter, seeks to save him from these affairs that divert him from his poetry.
Hoffmann’s choices in women range from the silly through the pathetic to the evil. His first love is the all too human story of the guy so smitten by a girl that he just doesn’t see the faults that all his friends are too well aware of. Hoffmann falls for a doll built by the physicist Spalanzani, Adam Ewing. Actually, that’s literal. With the help of some magical spectacles from the optometrist Coppelius, Adam Cioffari, he doesn’t realize that his lovely Olympia, Sarah Fox, is in fact a robot. Offenbach has some fun with the robotic Olympia as he has her do a mechanical take on over done aria ornaments. At the discovery of her real identity, the distraught Hoffmann collapses and is comforted by the Muse.
The pathetic story is of Antonia, Carolina Castells, a fragile sole for whom singing will be her death. While the story of Olympia was mostly fun, this actually gets to be quite darkly moving as Giulietta is coaxed to sing by the evil Dr. Miracle, Adam Cioffari. The scene is lightened by the comic turn of the deaf servant Franz, Michael Cummings, but it’s the darkness that prevails. Hoffmann is blamed for Giulietta’s death and departs with his Muse.
The final love, the evil one, is with the courtesan Giulietta, Leah McRath. Giulietta is bad enough to begin with, but her evil side is compounded by her compatriot Dapertutto, Oliver Henderson. He bribes her to steal Hoffmann’s image in a magical mirror. This love leads Hoffmann to kill a rival lover, Schlemil, Adam Ewing, in a dual. Once again Hoffmann is led away by the Muse. This time, to escape the police.
Offenbach left his work unfinished. In some versions, the opera ends on a down note with Hoffmann passed out on the table at the tavern where the stories began as the City Councilor Lindorf, Adonis Duque Abuyen, walks through with the local opera star that Hoffmann had hoped would be love number four. In the IU production, Hoffmann walks past the assembled students and the casts of the various love affairs as he chooses to go with his true love the Muse of his art.
Conductor David Effron led Saturday night’s strong performance. Guest Chris Alexander’s stage direction ranged from the archly theatrical to the starkly dramatic with plenty of fun mixed in. The men of the IU Opera Chorus make a lovely sound as a drunken student glee club. C. David Higgins’ sets and costumes combined with Michael Schwandt’s lighting for a rich evening for the eyes as well as the ears.
The IU Opera Theater’s production of Offenbach’s “…Tales of Hoffmann,” “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” continues with performances Friday and Saturday at eight. Opera Insights are on the mezzanine at seven.
You can find an interview with stage director Chris Alexander on our Arts Interviews page .