News Column

'Tales of Hoffmann' coherently painted

June 12, 2013


June 12--Amid all the operas about kings and queens, soldiers and demimondaines, Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" stands out as an example of that evocative category of operas about artists. And for his new production, which opens the San Francisco Opera's summer season on Wednesday night, the French director and designer Laurent Pelly has drawn inspiration from two artistic figures.

One, of course, is E.T.A. Hoffmann himself, the proto-Romantic writer and critic whose mystical stories of love and longing form the basis of Offenbach's opera. The other is Leon Spilliaert, a Belgian Symbolist painter whose work served as a model for Pelly's designs.

"He lived at Ostend and basically never left his house," Pelly said, speaking in French during a recent interview at the War Memorial Opera House. "So his paintings are nearly all interiors, still lifes and self-portraits -- these banal subjects that became fantastical in his imagination. And that seemed to connect with the world of Offenbach, which is also fantastical and yet very simple."

Pelly's goal, he said, was to find a visual scheme in Spilliaert's work -- with its palette of cool blues and grays -- that would enable him to tie together the disparate acts of the opera into a single cinematic flow.

"So often, productions of 'Hoffmann' are not especially coherent. They have scenes that don't relate to one another. I wanted my production to be not one set, then another and then another, but a moving set that would unite all the acts."

Staged in February

The production, which was first staged at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in February, is based on a smaller one that Pelly did a decade ago in Lausanne, Switzerland, that was subsequently destroyed. He worked on this in collaboration with Associate Director Christian Rath and dramaturge Agathe Melinand.

The goal of theatrical unity may have taken a hit, however, when soprano Natalie Dessay -- who was originally scheduled to sing all four soprano roles that reflect different aspects of Hoffmann's romantic life -- decided to sing only Antonia, the singer whose devotion to music leads to her death. The other female roles will be handled by Hye Jung Lee (Olympia), Irene Roberts (Giulietta) and Jacqueline Piccolino (Stella).

Pelly accepts the change in casting with a philosophical shrug.

"When you do the piece with one singer, one of the roles always gets sacrificed a bit," he says. "Either Olympia suffers, because the role is too high, or Giulietta because it's too low.

"But dramatically, the piece doesn't change very much. With four singers, the women become functions of his own vision."

Pelly, 51, made his San Francisco Opera debut in 2009 with a broadly comic staging of Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment" starring soprano Diana Damrau. A Parisian by birth, he was drawn to the theater at an early age -- first as an actor, then as a director and impresario.

He found his way into the world of opera through his interest in the world of 19th century theater, as a devotion to the stage works of Victor Hugo and Georges Courteline began to spill over to the music of Offenbach and Massenet.

Opera, theater

Still, he says, the two dramatic worlds between which he divides his time aren't that far apart.

"For me, theater and opera are pretty much the same thing. They are technically different, of course, because in the theater you can take your time and explore various ideas. And in the theater I'm the only one in charge, whereas in opera I work in partnership with a conductor.

"But in the end, either way I like to think of myself as an artist in service of the work. We've seen too many productions where a director has a single idea -- to stage 'Hoffmann' in, I don't know, a butcher's shop, for example -- and to me that's not enough.

"Certainly, there are some pieces for which the public has lost the social or cultural key. But it's necessary to bring these works to life in a way that transforms them without betraying their essence."

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail:


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