In Jacques Offenbach’s fantasy opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), the poet Hoffmann falls in love with three women who break his heart.
Jessica Derventzis, the director of the Toronto City Opera’s new production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, said she sees Hoffmann as a narcissist.
“He’s oppressed, he’s an alcoholic and he just puts himself in the worst of all possible positions and it never works out for him,” she said.
The opera opens in a tavern where Hoffmann tells his friends stories about the three loves of his life. The tales, three mini operas within Les Contes d’Hoffmann, are based on short stories by the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who is also the fictional protagonist of the opera.
In the first story, Hoffmann falls in love with Olympia, a mechanical doll, but through his magic glasses, she looks like a real woman.
In the second tale, a courtesan Hoffmann loves, named Giuletta, is given the task of stealing his reflection from a mirror.
In the third one, Hoffmann and a singer named Antonia love each other. Her father has forbidden her to sing because she has a mysterious illness. When the villain of the story, Doctor Miracle, encourages Antonia to sing, she dies.
The order of the three stories within the opera has varied in past productions. Offenbach, a Jew who converted to Catholicism to marry the love of his life, died in 1880, before the opera was finished.
“So other people pieced it together and there are a number of different versions,” Derventzis said. “It’s nice to end with Antonia. She’s just this wonderful light of a woman and it’s heartbreaking that they’re not able to end up together in the end.”
Soprano Nicole Whitney Dubinsky sings the roles of Hoffmann’s three loves – the doll, Giuletta and Antonia – as Offenbach originally intended. “As time went on, it was established that Olympia is a coloratura soprano, Antonia is a lyric soprano and Giuletta is sometimes sung by a more dramatic soprano, even a mezzo-soprano,” Dubinsky said.
She added that, for her, the challenge in singing all three roles is in her vocal range, from the top of her voice and the bottom of her voice in the different characters.
“The doll requires a very high note, a lot of flexibility, and Giuletta has more of a warmer tone,” Dubinsky said. The voice of Antonia – a kind, sweet, 20-year-old – is somewhere in the middle and has a warm, innocent quality, she added.
Dubinsky and mezzo-soprano Alex Hetherington (who plays Hoffmann’s closest friend, Nicklausse) perform the opera’s best-known song, “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” (“Beautiful night, oh night of love”). “It’s a beautiful duet because the lines are so seamless vocally that even though there are two voices, you almost hear them as one voice. They overlap beautifully and the only way to distinguish the two voices is through the different colours of our voices,” Dubinsky said.
Offenbach is mainly known for his operettas, having written nearly 100 from about 1850 to 1870, and for Les Contes d’Hoffmann. “The first act of the opera, with the doll, is the funniest. It’s most like what we are used to with Offenbach with operetta. Act 2 and Act 3 descend into a darker place,” Dubinsky said.
A stigma is attached to performing this opera, she said, because when it was supposed to premiere, just after Offenbach’s death, the opera house burned down, and a second one burned down before another performance.
For tickets to the show, which is running at the Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto from Nov. 21 to 24, visit torontocityopera.com.