Angels We Have Heard

There are a lot of people who wouldn't dream of attending an opera. They think of operas as outdated, frequented by the old, rich and pretentious, and featuring incomprehensible plots, elaborate costumes and scenery, great washes of sentiment, fat people pouring out endless arias, and dead people who inexplicably get up and sing. But a trip to the Central City Opera should dispel all these prejudices. CCO productions are staged with cool intelligence and a profound respect for the music, and they show that the form is still vividly alive. Operas are as different and as idiosyncratic as their composers; they can tease at the intellect, make you giggle or bring you to tears. The Tales of Hoffmann is likely to do all three.

Jacques Offenbach was known for his light comic operettas, but he composed Tales shortly before his death, with posterity in mind. You can see his comic-opera talents in the toe- tapping, buoyantly enjoyable drinking songs; Olympia's tinkling, coloratura aria would have delighted Gilbert and Sullivan. But the aria is also exquisite, and the opera features beautiful passages of yearning and passion.

Tales is based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, best known for "The Nutcracker," which is the source of the Christmas ballet, and has a darker undertone than we'd expect from the sparkly confection we're used to. The plot concerns a poet, Hoffmann, who's mooning around in a tavern while across the street, the woman he loves -- the great diva, Stella -- performs in Mozart's Don Giovanni. Stella, Hoffmann says, is everything to him: artist, maiden and courtesan. He then tells his drinking companions the story of three previous loves, who illustrate these roles. The romances he describes may be real or they may come from his fevered imagination. In any case, Hoffmann reels from beloved to beloved, drinking and taking drugs, until he's finally destroyed.

Of course, in the nineteenth century, self-destructiveness was seen in Romantic terms and celebrated in poetic circles as a sign that the sufferer had been touched by the divine madness of inspiration. But director Paul Curran has hit on the excellent device of setting his production in the 1920s. This, too, was a time when doomed, hedonistic youth was celebrated -- think expatriates in Paris, bohemianism, the rejection of the middle-class lifestyle and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But this was a different kind of ennui, fueled more by disgust with the post-World War I world than by the idea that a degenerate lifestyle was an aid to creativity. (I oversimplify, but you get the point.) At any rate, the 1920s setting adds a cooler, more ironic overlay to the events in Tales of Hoffmann.

Each of Hoffmann's three stories contains a supernatural element, and each plays on the nineteenth-century distrust of science and technology that stemmed from the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution.

Hoffmann's first love is Olympia, an animated doll created by Dr. Coppelius. He is deluded into loving her with the aid of rose-colored spectacles, despite the warnings of his friend and muse, Nicklausse. Unfortunately, Olympia veers -- comically, horribly -- out of control, posing a threat to the guests at her party and eventually literally falling apart.

The second story concerns Antonia, who, despite her love of music, has been forbidden by her father to sing. It seems her mother died because of the stress of singing (tuberculosis? We're never told), and Antonia has inherited the physical defect that killed her. The diabolical Dr. Miracle coaxes Antonia to ignore her father's warning, even conjuring the phantasm of her dead mother to urge her to sing louder, longer and more ecstatically. Despite his love for Olympia, Hoffmann cannot save her. This act is filled with heart-stopping singing -- Antonia's arias and a handful of extraordinary male duets and trios.

As the doomed Antonia sank to the floor, still singing, I couldn't help thinking of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes," a powerful metaphor for the compulsion artists feel to practice their art, in which the shoes literally dance the child who wears them to death. And there was something deeply moving in the idea of the human soul leaving the corporeal body as song.

Hoffmann's final beloved is the cynical whore, Giulietta, who conspires with the evil Dapertutto to steal his reflection -- that is, his soul.

In some productions, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta are sung by the same soprano, but Curran decided to use three performers, and the idea works well. These singers are as different in appearance, demeanor and vocal quality as the characters they play. Anna Christy manages to make the doll Olympia both graceful and mechanistic, expressively expressionless, her every gesture clear and convincing.

Oh, and that voice. Christy is a coloratura, which means she can make her voice soar and swoop like a swallow while the tone remains pure and sweet. Checking my notebook, I see that I rained adjectives onto the page describing her: Precise. Graceful. Free. And that old chestnut, crystalline. Elena Kolganova's singing as the doomed Antonia is lusher and more romantic, and Jane Bunnell unleashes an ear-filling, sweeping, gorgeous mezzo-soprano as Giulietta. (I'm sorry. You try doing this job without adjectives.)

Gerard Powers is a handsome Hoffmann, with a full, rich tenor -- beautiful on its own, exquisite when set against the voice of one of his leading ladies, and positively hair-raising when he sings with any of the opera's quartet of villains, all of them played by the resonant-chested and powerfully expressive baritone Grant Youngblood. Julie Anne Bartholomew sings sweetly in the trouser role of Nicklausse, and Javier Abreu animates a series of comic roles.

The evocative sets include a gleaming white operating room and Antonia's red-walled music room, in which everything is slightly tilted and off-center and where Dr. Miracle apparently emerges from an oversized doll's house.

The Tales of Hoffmann is enjoyable on many levels, and you really don't have to wear pearls or a suit to see it. There's no need to strain to follow the plot, which is more about feeling than logic, anyway. You can enjoy the humor, the ethos and the first-rate acting. Or you can just sit back and marvel at the ability of the human voice to produce such amazing sound. Angelic intervention really doesn't seem far-fetched.