I went into Tales of Hoffmann with low expectations and was not disappointed.
Pessimistically comical and misogynistic, Lyric Opera chose the final opera from German/French operetta (and Can Can) composer Jacques Offenbach to open their season; If I were God I might have buried it somewhere in the middle.
A Prologue introduces Hoffmann, a poet, who regales his drunken audience with tales of loves lost, each of the 3 acts a different woman. He is first seduced by the siren's song of an automaton, second by a frail singer, and third by a courtesan. Each time, he is foiled by a satanic figure who seems hellbent on intercepting every pass he makes.
But we must remember that it is Hoffmann who is telling the stories.
An epilogue proves it: Hoffmann is always blaming this devil in his stories, but in the end, he is his own worst enemy, foiled by his drunken stupor as his rival walks away with his lady.
Offenbach wrote Hoffmann in a last-ditch effort to write something great, something for the ages. Granted, we are still subjected to his Big Dance Hit today. But you can't just take a light operetta style and slap an unhappy ending on the end and call it great. It's still pretty light, as the main attraction is not the drama but the music and the comedy.
I'll admit, I'm biased against comic operas. For as many stupid things I find funny, I just can't crack a smile at most things that happen on an opera stage. Too much winking at the audience. Like the "stage combat" in the 3rd Act of Hoffmann, opera comedy always seems too safe.
That being said, there were some laughs. Not quite uproarious as promised but chuckles. And I did, in fact, crack a smile, but I think I was thinking about something else.
The set was amazing, eliciting gasps as the curtain rose, and the cast were fun to watch. Think late 19th c. Paris, specifically a train station, that could evoke a variety of moods with a lighting change.
James Morris played the various evil characters, singing with a noble, resonant voce. And by noble, I mean royalty, specifically the kind of royalty that has rested on its laurels and is about to be overthrown. Maybe not quite Louis XVI noble but XV. His Satan has been doing this gig for a while and is a little tired, taking no real pleasure in the trickery.
Matthew Polenzani was Hoffmann. A reedy tenor, Polenzani did so well at playing a drunk in the Prologue that I had trouble seeing him as anything but. Good voice, good presence, not overbearing but could use some more bravado. A little timid.
The female characters were either automatons, puppets, or whores. Good voices and performances, but of those, Alyson Cambridge as Giulietta stood out. Her courtesan character had some of the most charisma on stage.
It's a fun romp through the mind of a great poet (numbed by booze). I'm just not that into fun.