Like many successful composers of operettas and light-hearted fare, the German-born Parisian Jacques Offenbach yearned for a different reputation—that of a serious composer. Although Gioachino Rossini had once called him "the Mozart of the Champs-Elysées," Offenbach's popularity as a composer of tuneful melodies full of social satire rose and fell with the fickle Parisian taste in music and theater in the late 19th century. After returning to Paris following a U.S. working visit in 1876 that was a financial success but an artistic and critical flop, he began work on what would be his one true opera, The Tales of Hoffmann.
Somewhat dispirited and in failing health, Offenbach probably identified, at least unconsciously, with the hero of the play on which the opera is based, Les Contes Fantastiques d'Hoffmann by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. The play cleverly incorporated the character of the real-life German poet and writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, replacing the protagonists in three of his own stories. Barbier's libretto for the opera added a prologue and epilogue to the three acts that explain and structure the intriguing premise.
In the prologue, while waiting in a tavern for word from his opera-diva amour, Stella, Hoffmann begins telling his fellow bar denizens three stories of lost love. The three heroines of these stories—Olympia, Antonia, and Giuletta—each represent a facet of Hoffmann's ideal woman, whom he believes to be Stella. In each story, however, Hoffmann's search for love is foiled by evil villains—Coppélius, Doctor Miracle, and Dappertutto—each of whom is a representation of the prologue's antagonist, Counsellor Lindorf. In the epilogue, not realizing that Lindorf has intercepted Stella's note, Hoffmann believes that he has once again suffered lost love and drowns his sorrow in drink.
Offenbach never lived to see his opera realized, dying four months before the 1881 premiere with some of the scoring incomplete. As a result, numerous versions have appeared over the years, with the composer's real intentions being hotly debated by music scholars. Even the current 2009 Metropolitan Opera production was challenged for an outdated score and speculations made about Offenbach himself.
Although the work is naturally episodic, continuity through the three acts is essential for both audience understanding and effective theater. While the original 1881 production featured the singers portraying multiple characters, that feat has been harder to accomplish in contemporary productions, with many sopranos unwilling to take on the daunting task of singing all three roles. Knoxville Opera's production this week, however, remains true to the original premise, with the 22 roles being covered by only 10 singers. Soprano Talise Trevigne, seen previously by KO audiences as Gilda in Rigoletto (2009) and in the title role of Manon (2011), is singing all four of the soprano roles—Olympia, Antonia, Giuletta, and Stella.
Also returning to Knoxville Opera from Manon is stage director Keturah Stickann, who directed KO's 2011 La Traviata. In that production, visual continuity was a key stylistic factor, as it will be in The Tales of Hoffmann.
"One of the things we've done from a visual aspect is that the tavern never goes away," Stickann explains. "The stage transforms itself, but there are always tables onstage and there are always tavern denizens watching the story as it unfolds. We never lose sight of the fact that the whole story is taking place in a tavern."
That continuity must also carry over into the characters themselves who, in this updated production, are inhabitants of 1920s Berlin.
"I've been conscious of finding parallels that make a through line for each of these characters so that we see that in [Hoffmann's] head that the devil is always the devil no matter what costume he puts on, and Stella is always Stella no matter what woman she appeared as," Stickann says.
Joining Trevigne in the 10-person cast is tenor Evan Bowers, making his Knoxville Opera debut in the role of Hoffmann. The various faces of evil (Lindorf, Coppélius, Doctor Miracle, and Dappertutto) will be sung by Markus Beam. The roles of Nathanaël, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio will be sung by tenor Boris van Druff; the roles of Luther, Crespel, and Schlémil by bass Kevin Thompson; Nicklausse and the Muse by mezzo-soprano Leah Kaye Serr; Andrès by Harry House; and the voice of Antonia's mother by Lauren Lyles.
Offenbach's eloquent score, with the orchestrations completed by Ernest Guiraud after the composer's death, will be performed by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra under the baton of KO executive director Brian Salesky.