Tales of Hoffmann has a casually epic feel about it. It was the last work of the great composer Jacques Offenbach. (He died a year before it debuted.) It wasn't what one might expect as a final exit for a great artist, though. It wasn’t a big, sweeping magical end of life journey. The story might be seen as a perfectly ordinary evening between a man and his muse as he relates the story of three lost loves. All the same, there's magical emotional weight to it. This month The Milwaukee Opera Theatre and The Skylight invite audiences to a magical evening at the Broadway Theatre Center as they present a production of Hoffman’s three tales.
John Kaneklides is suitably passionate as Hoffmann—a man lost to his loves who must be coaxed into reliving them by his muse—a compassionate host played by the golden-voiced Diane Lane. From a stylishly-detailed set, Hoffmann scratches away searching for some kind of insight until his muse finally conjures a trio of stories out of him.
The first love gracefully cascades into a steampunk mood. Hoffmann falls in love with a clockwork girl named Olympia. She’s played by Cecilia Davis with clever shades of automation breaking through the beauty of creation. There’s a subtle horror of it that Davis delivers brilliantly...sort of a clockwork operatic rendering of the uncanny valley effect that’s great fun between the ticktock woman and the doll she holds. Nathan Wesselowski plays the inventor who designed her. Wesselowski plays the role with deft slices of style from a characteristically sharp sense of humor. Ariana Douglas is clever as the conniving rival inventor who threatens to bring an end to it all.
Josh Robinson (assistant music director), Susan Wiedmeyer (Antonia), Carol Greif (a ghost) and Cecilia Davis (Dr. Miracle) in rehearsal for Skylight Music Theatre’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann in association with Milwaukee Opera Theatre, March 16-29 on the Cabot Theatre stage. PHOTO: MARK FROHNA
With one tale ending poorly, Hoffman is allowed the first of two intermissions before launching into his second story. The clockwork mood of the first story vanishes in favor of a more haunting ghostly feel as the writer speaks of his love for Antonia. Susan Wiedmeyer is longingly spectral as the love interest...she’s in slightly ill-health which threatens to get worse, but she loves to sing, but her father has forbidden it. Edward Lupella summons a very touching paternal concern for Antonia. He’s a violin maker whose wife has died. All singing reminds him of her. There’s a tenuous balance to things that tumbled apart at the touch of the sinister Doctor Miracle, played with delicious menace by Cecilia Davis. Each Of the three stories has it’s one incredible moment of intensity. In this tale, it is divided between a daughter and the ghost of her late mother. There is real magic and how they’re putting it on the stage. The very real image of her mother appears on A piano as the doctor looks on. Mother and daughter saying in that hazy space between death and life.
Ariana Douglas plays with grace as Hoffmann’s final love of the night. She appears after the second intermission to woo Hoffmann at the request of a sorcerer played by Wiedmeyer. Sonya Berlovitz has the costume designer’s dream of working on this show. There are some really beautiful pieces in this production. By far my favorite has to be that of the sorcerer Dapertutto. Asymmetrical top hat. Eyepatch. The look of us stage magician crossing over into vaguely hypnotic kind of black magic. Very cool stuff.
And why does this sorcerer want Hoffmann to be seduced? If Giulietta can enchant Hoffmann, she can capture his reflection for her. In exchange Giulietta gets a shiny valuable. That’s got to be one of the most poetically badass things to steal from someone: their reflection. Any villain can demand someone's soul. It takes a very special kind of sinister to demand someone's reflection. The theme of reflection echoes into the costuming. All the attendees at the little get-together are wearing mirrored domino masks. It's a cleverly stylish amplification of the theme of identity loss in pursuit of passion.
Yes: It's Opera...but on the Other Hand...It's Opera (!)
Opera can be dauntingly long. The prospect of being in a theater for a 2 1/2 hours can give any potential audience pause. What with so much emotion coming out in over such a protracted period of time it can feel over-rendered. Milwaukee Opera Theatre does a really good job of striking a balance between casual approachability and the popular stereotype of opera as over-the-top high art drama. For all practical purposes, Tales of Hoffman is simply the story of a writer coming up with an idea for a new piece. It doesn’t need to be anything more intense than that. However, that act of creation has its own intensity. That casual creation lies the heart of all art which is the center of all existence itsef. So at the same time as it is just a casual talk with them use over a few drinks with someone who is sensitive enough to be quite dramatic about it it’s also reaching into the very soul of life. Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik understands the balance between the casual and the fantastic and delivers that balance to the stage quite well once again.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Skylight Opera Theatre’s production of Tales of Hoffman runs through Mar. 29 at the Cabot Theater in the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.