Arts Listings

Berkeley Opera Stages ‘Tales of Hoffman’

By Jaime Robles Special to the Planet
Wednesday March 04, 2009 - 06:58:00 PM

It’s little wonder that E.T.A. Hoffmann was one of the Romantic era’s favorite and most influential writers—parts of his long fantastic stories can be found in many of the operas and ballets of the time from Delibes to Tchaikovsky to Offenbach. Recognizing a cultural force when he saw one, Papa Freud used Hoffmann’s work as the basis for his essay on the uncanny, “Das Unheimliche.” 

Hoffmann’s stories are infused with an air of horror and whimsy, populated with rat kings and candy lands, doppelgangers and automatons, spectacles that distort reality and change the wearer’s emotional world.  

Jacques Offenbach made the writer the subject of his opera The Tales of Hoffman, but died before the opera’s completion musically. The opera was finished by other composers and as many as five different versions appear, each celebrating the enduring charm of both the writer and the composer.  

The version chosen by Berkeley Opera as its season opener is a composite of more contemporary versions—Fritz Oeser’s, from the 1970s, and Michael Kaye’s, from the 1990s—both of which were based on scholarly discoveries that revealed more of composer and librettist Jean Barbier’s intentions.  

In this current version, the driving conflict of the plot is between the writer’s muse and the women who are the objects of Hoffman’s copious love—the muse wants him to love only her, claiming that she has loved him the best and the longest, that she could heal all the pain in the poet’s life if only he would buckle down and get back to writing. 

For the opening performance on Saturday, Feb. 28, Nora Lennox Martin excellently sang the role of the muse, who assumes the guise of Hoffmann’s best buddy, Nicklaus, during the opera’s three tales. Martin has a warm, full sound in the lower mezzo range and a more bell-like tone in the upper register. Having the buddy and muse be a pants role gives the character an appropriately surprising and slightly otherworldly quality.  

Writer’s block was never one of Hoffmann’s problems, though his life in the bourgeois world of Polish and German jurisprudence was fraught with complications and iniquities, and his love life was erratic. He was a round peg trying to fit in a square hole. As inaccurate as the opera’s portrayal of the writer may be, however, it did allow playwright Michel Carré and librettist Barbier to use three of Hoffman’s eerie and most psychologically charged stories by turning the story’s central female character into one of character Hoffman’s longed for—yet artistically distracting—lady loves. 

The roles demand different voice types and are often sung by three different women—although the opera’s Hoffmann claims they are three different aspects of the same woman: the doll, the artiste, and the harlot. Soprano Angela Cadelago took on the heavy task of all three, and she succeeded admirably. Her voice was light in the coloratura part of the doll, Olympia, but she effortlessly hung on to the roller coaster ride of the famous doll aria, “Les oiseaux dans la charmille.” The lyric soprano part of the artiste Antonia, who like her mother suffers from a mysterious illness that ultimately causes her death by singing, brought out the plusher, most luxuriant qualities of Cadelago’s voice.  

The vibrantly toned tenor, Adam Flores, sang Hoffman, a part that carries heaps of poetic feeling, swinging from deep drunken angst to sublime love. Bass-baritone Paul Murray sang Councilor Lindorf. Lindorf is not merely Hoffman’s nemesis; he is a personification of evil, which assumes a different guise in each tale. Both Flores and Murray have large, solid voices. 

Librettist David Scott Marley sensibly had many of the supporting characters in the “real” world of Hoffmann’s tavern assume different personas within the tales, although the roles they played within the individual story’s plots were similar. The barman Luther became the automaton servant in Olympia’s story, Antonia’s father and Giulietta’s erstwhile lover; all four roles were sung by tenor Wayne Wong. George Arana assumed the comic supporting roles.  

Marley’s translation was very clean and accessible, adding to the appeal of this charming production. It was an auspicious opening of the Berkeley Opera’s 30th anniversary season.  




Performed by Berkeley Opera at 8 p.m. Friday, March 6 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 8 at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley.