This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Both Sigmund Freud and his renegade apostle Carl Jung were drawn to the work of the Romantic genius E. T. A. Hoffmann, a legal scholar, composer, painter, poet and, well, a drunk. No surprise really these three men would find each other. The interests and concerns of Freud, Jung and Hoffmann, indeed their lives’ work, were parallel. The foundation of the industry of all three giants was built on journeys into the human unconscious and on examinations of fantasy and the ways in which the unconscious and fantasy manifest themselves in human behavior as well as in great human achievements such as art.
Saturday was opening night of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of Jacques Offenbach’s sprawling, complicated “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Among other things, the organization of this production is a nearly perfect dramatic representation of Freud’s imaginary topography of the human mind. Hoffmann (who is both author and character) is pure Id. His muse and companion, Nicklausse, who loves him, frets about him, fears for his life and finds him irresistible, is Ego personified. And art, initiated by the Muse, is the Super Ego – a commanding aesthetic authority and a means to redemption.
The opera is a pastiche of three stories by Hoffmann. These stories form the three acts, book ended by a prologue and epilogue.
In the beginning and at the end, the scene is in Luther’s café-bar, next door to an opera house where the brilliant La Stella (the star) is singing in a production of “Don Giovanni.”
Act I concerns a mechanical woman Olympia, for whom Hoffmann falls, thinking she is flesh and blood. Act II tends away from the farcical toward the tragicomic, and in it another of Hoffmann’s beloveds, Antonia, dies of consumption after singing when she’d been warned not to. The final act is in the Venetian palazzo of the courtesan Giulietta, and here poor Hoffmann, with whom any sane person is exasperated by now, loses his very soul. Back in the bar for the epilogue, Hoffmann is approached by Stella, who tries to ensnare him. He rejects her, and by doing so, by following his muse, wins back his soul.
This concatenation of improbable stories, this laying bare of emotions, this roundup of the corruptibility and stupidity of all of us who fret and strut about our own little stages, is repeated endlessly in biographies, novels, poems, plays, movies, operas.
In effulgent works such as “The Tales of Hoffmann,” we are reminded relentlessly of human frailty, of the eternal conflict of good and evil, of despair and jubilation, of sexual longing and deceptions, of excesses and crimes, of art, of redemption and so on and on. This opera is not, however, pain and suffering without end, for there are moments of genuine hilarity and even occasions of mildly tolerable slapstick. In “Hoffmann,” all this is set to music of a generally glorious quality.
Beyond all that, “The Tales of Hoffmann” is also a story of fragmentation. In Opera Theatre’s remarkable production, the composer, Offenbach appears at the top of the show as a bronze sculpture, and at the top of the show the pages of the opera score are thrown into the air and scattered around the stage like so much rubbish. This is not only a symbolic gesture but also a historical reference.
“The Tales of Hoffmann” was left unfinished by Offenbach when he died in Paris in 1880. As music critic Anthony Tomassini wrote in The New York Times in 1996, Offenbach left “an utter mess,” an equivalent of Hoffmann’s life as presented in the opera.
“The work's performance history,” Tomassini said, “has been a tale of tamperings, wholesale additions and scholarly conflicts.” Indeed, in Opera Theatre’s 1986 production of “Hoffmann,” the late Colin Graham added to the libretto and composer Cary John Franklin added new music.
This season’s production uses the performing edition put together by musicologist and author Michael Kaye. In Tomassini’s 1996 article, he wrote that although Kaye acknowledged that “many questions about the opera can never be settled, Mr. Kaye recently admitted to being ' bit defensive' at the suggestion that his edition is less than definitive. His research is based on more than 350 previously unknown pages of Offenbach's manuscript, auctioned at Sotheby's in 1986.”
At this moment, I may be hip-deep in a swamp many readers may find tedious, especially when what they’re looking for is not a lot of parsing but some basic consumer information about whether to make the journey to Webster Groves to see this show. I say, "Go."
This “Hoffmann” is sophisticated, taut, witty, brisk and entirely absorbing and -- unlike some sibling “Hoffmanns” -- actually makes reasonably good sense dramatically. It is a joy to the eyes. The costumes and décor hark back to 19th century Paris, to the constructions of Gustave Eiffel and Henri Labrouste and to the life of the Boulevard. The barmaid at the café is a ringer for Edouard Manet’s barmaid in “A Bar at the Folies Bergere.” The great clock from the Gare d’Orsay is a central architectural image. An intricate architecture of fantasy inspired by the Dutch graphics genius M.C. Escher holds the background, sometimes concealed behind opaque-glazed industrial window walls. Wigs, makeup and lighting are up to the company’s always-high standards.
The Olympia act is a surrealist tour de force, and poor Antonia’s moments are bathed in an appropriately minimalist ghostly white. By contrast, wretched excess makes an appearance when the visual fireworks explode ricochet around the stage in Act III. Prepare for a splashing from the Grand Canal.
I claim no particular musical expertise other than having hung around opera houses, music halls and phonographs for longer than I wish to consider. I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what’s good and what is not so, however, and I make my exit from “Hoffmann” with an enthusiastic bravo for all concerned, and humming a barcarolle.
A literary footnote: In the 1980s, the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies made visits to St. Louis and to Opera Theatre. He loved his experiences here, and made several references to St. Louis in his 1988 novel, “The Lyre of Orpheus,” which concerns the restoration and revival of another opera by E.T.A. Hoffman.
About the showThe Tales of Hoffmann (les Contes D’hoffmann)
An opera in prologue, three acts and epilogue, based on three stories -- “The Sandman,” “New Year’s Eve Adventure” and “Counsellor Crespel” by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann
Composer: Jacques Offenbach (with orchestration completed by Ernest Guiraud)
Libretto: Jules Barbier, based on a play by him and Michel Carre and the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann
Conductor: Stephen Lord
Stage Director: Renaud Doucet
Set and Costume Designer: Andre Barbe
Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough
Wigs and Makeup Designer: Tom Watson
Cast of Principal Characters:
Stella-Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta: Ailyn Perez (Pamela Armstrong in June 25 and June 28 performances)
Hoffmann: Garrett Sorenson
Nicklausse-Muse: Jennifer Johnson
Lindorf-Coppelius-Doctor Miracle-Dapertutto: Kirk Eichelberger
List of other characters, performance dates and times, etc.: https://www.opera-stl.org/