E.T.A. Hoffmann was a real person, an important figure in German Romanticism at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, whose offbeat, moody short stories were often anthologized. A Parisian playwright named Jules Barbier dramatized several of them under the title “Tales of Hoffmann,” which the composer Jacques Offenbach combined into an opera with a four-part, episodic structure. Seattle Opera's version opened Saturday at McCaw Hall.
A love-sick Hoffmann, the protagonist, waits in the lobby bar of a provincial opera house for his paramour, Stella. To pass the time, he narrates his muddled pursuit of three unattainable women — a mechanical doll, a sickly singer and a fickle courtesan — to his wingman Nicklausse.
William Burden as Hoffmann and Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse. Photo: Elise Bakketun
The episodes follow the Romantic tradition of ewige Weibliche, or the eternal feminine, to which Goethe ascribed the driving force of humanity. Fittingly, all four of the women are portrayed by soprano Norah Amsellem, which hasn't happened in Seattle, since 1970, when they were sung by the late Joan Sutherland.
Each of Hoffman's four flawed heroine lovers (Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, Stella) is matched with a dastardly villain (an evil moneylender, an irresponsible physician, a corrupt magician, a scheming politician), who are similarly all played by the same basso — a suitably menacing Nicolas Cavallier. And Hoffmann is sung by the always-reliable tenor William Burden, who's been turning up in Seattle regularly since 2000.
But the outstanding performer in this production is mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, who transforms the awkward and thankless double role — Hoffmann's muse as well as his sidekick Nicklausse — into a single, believable character. Because Offenbach died before approving a final edition of the score, “Hoffmann” productions can vary widely from one opera house to the next. Other productions I've seen simply cut most of the muse-Nicklausse role (even in New York and Paris) because it seems to get in the way of the four-part fantasy love story.
The Seattle version, though, provides welcome additional material for the Nicklausse character. To Lindsey's credit, she makes an effortless transition from Hoffmann's spiritual guide (in shimmering white satin) to his youthful wingman, only slightly jealous of Hoffmann's tales of sexual adventure. Lindsey's first appearance in Seattle was a valiant effort in the title role of "Amelia," an earnest opera given its world premiere at McCaw Hall in 2010. She has returned a couple of times in lighter roles (Rosina in "Barber of Seville"), but seems to have found her calling as Nicklausse.
From left: Norah Amsellem as Olympia, Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse, William Burden as Hoffmann and Nicolas Cavallier as Coppelius in The Tales of Hoffmann. Photo: Elise Bakketun
This is the company's last opera under General Director Speight Jenkins, who has shepherded 169 main-stage productions since arriving in Seattle 31 seasons ago. In August, Jenkins will turn over the reins to the internationally-recognized Aidan Lang, who last headed up the New Zealand Opera.
Jenkins' contributions to Seattle Opera are immeasurable. As Crosscut founder David Brewster wrote in these columns 18 months ago, “Jenkins, above all but hardly alone, has put Seattle on the national artistic map. His achievement, and it is very much the result of one man’s total commitment to a very difficult cause in such a smallish city, is extraordinary.”
Hoffmann may be the last opera for Jenkins, but it is not his final farewell. That will come in a concert on August 9th that's scheduled to feature a medley of operatic themes, including Wotan's farewell from Wagner's Die Walküre, Vissi d'Arte ("I lived for art") from Tosca and Una Furtiva Lagrima ("A furtive tear") from Donizetti's The Elixir of Love.
"The glory of opera," Jenkins pointed out in commissioning the opera “Amelia,” "is the power of music to enrich words." If all goes as planned at the farewell concert, there won't be a dry eye in the house.
If you go: Tales of Hoffmann, Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall, Through May 17th (Tickets start at $25).
Crosscut's arts coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.