All Time Coloratura

Operas for Springtime: Les contes d’Hoffmann

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on March 5, 2010

I have lived all my life in cold climates, and of the places I have lived Toronto is one of the warmest. But I still feel the misery of winter, and spent January and February trying to cheer myself with thoughts of March. When spring clothes arrived in the shops a few weeks ago, it felt like a cruelty. They mocked me from the windows while icy water seeped into my boots.

But then March 1st arrived, and the weather turned. I still need to wear my winter coat when I go out, but hearing the melting snow rushing into the drains makes me breathe easier. Without my hat, gloves, and scarf, I feel lighter and freer. This is the time of year I usually buy a new summer dress.

This is the time of year for French opera, or really any opera that’s lush. For me this will always be exemplified by Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann.

My favourite moments in Hoffmann:

1. Hoffmann, to amuse his friends, is singing a comical song about an ugly man named Kleinzach. Halfway through the song, about to describe Kleinzach’s figure, he is interrupted by thoughts of his former love and begins describing her beauty, confusing his audience greatly. The music accompanying his erotic reverie, honestly, isn’t especially interesting on its own – but the juxtaposition with the low, broad Kleinzach ditty is a little odd and completely charming.

2. Hoffmann has unknowingly fallen in love with a mechanical life-size singing doll. Her maker, who is throwing a party, brings her out to impress his guests. She performs a party-trick aria, full of almost-absurd coloratura fireworks. Listening to a soprano who can really pull this aria off is a joy in itself, but there’s more to it than that. Opera is full of party-trick arias that require mechanical precision to sing convincingly. Having a story where one performed as an actual party trick, by an actual machine, gives it another layer of interest and self-referential quirkiness.

3. Antonia is wasting away of a mysterious illness, that is somehow aggravated when she sings. The evil quack doctor, the ironically-named Dr. Miracle, purports to be able to treat her; but her father will have nothing of it. Dr. Miracle insists on seeing her, and tells that he can treat her from afar. He addresses an empty chair as though it were Antonia, and mimes taking her pulse. At first it seems like a charade, but when he commands her to sing, we hear a thrilling high note from offstage, followed by a descending scale. Equally exciting (to me) is the following sequence where Dr. Miracle attempts to sell his medicines, clicking his bottles together like castanets.

4. Antonia knows that if she sings too much, she will die. Part of what makes her sacrifice especially painful is that her mother was a famous diva, whose portrait dominates the scene. Under the influence of Dr. Miracle’s magic, the woman in the portrait stirs to life, imploring Antonia to keep singing. Her melody is diva-worthy.

The opera takes place over a series of dream-like fantasy sequences, wherein Hoffmann longs for idealized women who die, break, or leave with other men. It celebrates longing and fantasy (alcohol-fueled, of course) with one eye turned to the inherent ridiculousness of it all, knowing that there’s something both silly and exquisite about desires that can never be fulfilled. It’s this touch of irony that prevents its romanticism from becoming sugary, and that makes it the perfect theme music for the first nice day of spring.

Here’s the full portrait scene (portrait starts singing about 3 and a half minutes in):

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