Off-putting Offenbach: Director Alden does it again, ruining Santa Fe’s “Hoffmann” with idiocy and excess

August 18, 2010

Paul Groves as Hoffmann, Wayne Tigges as Coppelius, and Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse in Santa Fe Opera's "The Tales of Hoffmann." Photo: Ken Howard

It’s surprising that it took Santa Fe Opera so long to mount its first production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. With its multiple roles, flamboyant characters and range of musical styles, Offenbach’s free-wheeling take on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fantastical stories would seem like prime fare for the venturesome New Mexico company.

The good news about Santa Fe’s first Hoffmann, heard Tuesday night, is that the cast and conducting were first-class, and musically this is about as rich and involving a performance of Offenbach’s unfinished swan song as I’ve ever experienced.

The problem is one had to close one’s eyes to enjoy it. The portents were ominous with director Christopher Alden, know for his outré revisionism and stage excesses, assigned to this sprawling tale of the poet Hoffmann’s three great loves, with its outlandish characters and tripartite scenario.

Unfortunately, Stephen Lord’s magnificent musical direction, Allen Moyer’s eye-popping German inn set, and a terrific cast were undermined repeatedly and fatally by the assorted idiocies of director Alden.

It’s hard to understand why Alden continues to be viewed as a brilliant and innovative director when his staging tropes have become so predictable, replacing the hoary old clichés with hoary new clichés.

All his standard shtick is here: the frozen tableaux of characters staring in different directions; the pointless revisionism; the upstaging of key musical moments by the distracting busyness of minor characters; the unmotivated, crawling, dancing, fondling and cavorting, and encouraging his singers to overact outrageously.

Overall, Alden seems to think he’s the smartest guy in the operatic room, while in reality his arrogant and corrosive postmodern cynicism only serves to sabotage the works and subvert their humanity. If you want to see a Hoffmann with Coppelius vivisecting Olympia, this is the production for you.

What a shame such a talented cast was wasted in this directorial mess. Paul Groves, looking properly dissipated, gave one of his finest performances as the title poet, showing unflagging energy over the long evening, and singing with great force and sensitivity, some weakness at the top of his range apart.

In Alden’s conceit, Nicklausse is not Hoffmann’s disguised Muse, but a mole aligned to the Mephistophelian villain to bring about Hoffmann’s downfall.  Kate Lindsey is one of our most charismatic and gifted young artists, and the lissome mezzo sang radiantly, particularly in Nicklausse’s Act 2 violin aria.

Unfortunately, Alden—who doesn’t seem to like women very much—had her indulge in all sorts of demeaning actions, whether writhing in apparent autoerotic frenzy, vigorously conducting the music, putting a picture frame around her neck, striking casual poses and running her hand through her hair 2,387 times.

In this Michael Kaye edition of Offenbach’s unfinished opus, Scintille diamant is excised, but hardly missed since Wayne Tigges was consistently inspired in the quartet of villain roles, his saturnine presence and dark-hued bass-baritone perfectly allied to the manipulative characters.

Erin Wall sang well as the four heroines, particularly so in the doll Olympia’s stratospheric coloratura but proved rather bland in characterization in a casting assignment that cries out for a personality-plus singer as adept at comedy as drama.

The talented character tenor David Cangelosi provided the few genuinely funny moments in his varied servant guises, but also much of the distracting excesses, whether rolling around or fondling Antonia’s legs.

As is his habit, Alden morphed the smaller roles into either silent sentinels or cavorting supernumeraries, and Harold Wilson as Luther and Crespel, Jill Grove as Antonia’s Mother, Darik Knutsen as Schlemil and Mark Schowalter as Spalanzani gamely entered into the shenanigans.

Conductor Stephen Lord, making his company debut, drew majestic, luxuriant playing from the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.

Alden’s final coup was to subvert the inspiring finale’s triumph of art by having the villain feed Hoffmann’s pages into a fire. Would that more opera companies would do that with Christopher Alden’s contracts.

The Tales of Hoffmann will be repeated August 24 and 28.

2 Responses to “Off-putting Offenbach: Director Alden does it again, ruining Santa Fe’s “Hoffmann” with idiocy and excess”

  1. Posted Sep 06, 2010 at 9:10 am by TLSeese

    I missed a gondola. The Barcarolle without the boat.
    It wasn’t as bad as the Met’s, however.
    One of my favorite operas and I have read, no one gets it “right”.

  2. Posted Sep 18, 2010 at 9:12 pm by Ken Ziebarth

    I found this one of the very best Santa Fe productions I have seen in nearly 25 years of attendance! I finally could clearly see the point that Stella is one LIVE woman who:
    – is a recognized diva in her time,
    – can seem very cold and mechanical if not viewed from the proper perspective,
    – would rather die than stop singing and being a diva, and
    – is a sex addict, using and destroying lovers as she wishes.

    And Kate Lindsey is amazing!!