DETROIT - Although it is arguably piecemeal in both construction and message, a well-realized performance of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann can be a wrenchingly emotional experience. Michigan Opera Theatre's opened an opulent, yet sinewy, production last weekend, and performances continue through Sunday in the Detroit Opera House.
Based in Paris for most of his life, the German-born Offenbach wrote more than 100 works for the stage. Tales is his only full-blown opera, and it was left uncompleted at his death in 1880.
Based on the fantastical stories of 18th-century German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann, Tales is far larger and darker than any other Offenbach work. It is also suffused with symbolism. At the simplest level the story profiles an artist who must decide between illusion - that is, the world of the senses - and art - the world of truth. The proper choice, or so Hoffmann and Offenbach seem to be telling us, is art; but not until the soul has taken in a lifetime or three worth of sensuality. Such experiences, evidently, are to serve as creative fodder.
The action opens in a Nuremberg tavern across from an opera house where Mozart's Don Giovanni, a story of hopeless love, is being produced. As strains of that opera filter into the tavern, Hoffmann debates the nature of true love. To prove the verity of his beliefs, Hoffmann tells his tavern audience three tales of unfulfilled love. The ideal woman, he claims, combines characteristics of the three women in these stories.
The first story deals with illusion and tells of Hoffmann's disastrous love for Olympia, a mechanical doll who, when seen - literally - through rose-colored glasses, appears to be real. The second story concerns excess and presents the frail Antonia, who, following the path of her deceased mother, dies from the emotional and physical ravages of singing. The third story confronts desire and introduces the sensuous Giulietta, a devil-aligned courtesan who seduces Hoffmann in order to steal his soul.
Each tale is darker than the preceding. Hoffmann's foibles with Olympia - a story ballet aficionados know through Delibes' 1870 Coppelia - could easily fit into Offenbach's light opera format. The subsequent stories, however, could not.
Psychologically, the opera works on a multitude of levels. Stage director Bernard Uzan gives an even-handed approach that allows the many siren voices - troubling and reassuring, tragic and comic - to be clearly articulated.
Singing the role of the oft-befuddled Hoffmann was American tenor Antonio Nagore. A strong actor with a large and rich voice, Nagore occasionally oversang. This was unfortunate, for there was already plenty of power without the added decibels. Trying to bring it on actually gave less in terms of timbre and pitch.
If baritone Mark S. Doss - who played Hoffmann's nemesis Lindorf as well as the evil character in each of the tales - ever approached the limit of his expressive palette, he gave no such indication. The voice was huge, the articulation biting. Doss' searing portrayal of the ruthless Dr. Miracle - the entire act was brutally and superbly shaped by Uzan - was unforgettable.
Of Hoffmann's three loves, their voices were remarkably like their characters. Elizabeth Parcells, who skillfully portrayed the mechanical doll Olympia, showed cool precision. Lyne Fortin presented Antonia, the maid who sings herself to death, with the vocal intensity of one compelled by her art. Carmella Jones' courtesan, Giulietta, was appropriately opulent.
Jennifer Anne Cooper's pleasing voice was perhaps not quite big enough to fill the huge Detroit Opera House, but her generous portrayal of Nicklausse, Hoffmann's sidekick, was the single constantly warm spot in an otherwise disturbing afternoon. Pierre Lefebvre and Donald Hartmann were top-flight in their various character roles. So too was Matthew Tuell as the oddball scientist Spalanzani. His character was as crazy as his spring-like electric orange hairdo.
Under the musical direction of Mark D. Flint, the orchestra was not as precise as it might have been. Entrances were not always clean, brass was allowed to overblow. The chorus, after some difficulty with the off-stage opening, was excellent.
Detroit Opera House will present Offenbach's “The Tales of Hoffmann” at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Friday, and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway. The role of Hoffmann alternates between Nagore and Vinson Cole, that of Lindorf between Doss and Richard Bernstein. Tickets range from $18 to $98. Information: 313-237-7464.