SAN FRANCISCO — A strange thing happened Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House. The San Francisco Opera, lumbering toward the end of a season that has resembled a festival of mediocrity, mustered a remarkably stylish and vital performance of "Les Contes d'Hoffmann."
For once, nearly everything went right.
Lotfi Mansouri's always atmospheric stage direction sustained witty invention, subtle character definition and clever motivation without resorting to gimmickry and without distorting the original impulses.
Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's decors, created for Miami in 1980, conveyed the fantasy of the piece with flair and elegance. His painted flats, evocative scrims and projections reinforced the essential dramatic impulses without getting in the way. The same sets and costume designs, incidentally, have been enlarged and embellished for the more extravagant Metropolitan Opera version.
Thomas J. Munn complemented Schneider-Siemssen's best efforts with a marvelously moody and flexible lighting scheme.
Michael Plasson conducted with incessant verve that tended to slight the romantic sensibilities. After his rather clumsy "Romeo," however, the brio and propulsion of his "Hoffmann" came as a pleasant surprise.
The large cast, with Placido Domingo at his estimable best in the title role, turned out to be strong in most cases and inspired in several.
One could grouse, as always, about the edition chosen. San Francisco spurned the musicological advances of the Oeser version, which reconstructs the piece along lines envisioned by Offenbach himself. (The composer died just before the Paris premiere in 1881.) Basically, this production reverted to the time-dishonored Choudens arrangements of 1907.
Some crucial compromises, however, were permitted: The three acts progressed in their intended order, with the Venice episode coming last; large portions of both the prologue and epilogue were restored; and Nicklausse, revealed as the Muse of Poetry, retained his/her sentimental romanza in the Antonia act. These procedural decisions supported musical as well as dramatic logic.
Domingo, chronic overachiever that he is, doesn't do everything equally well these days. His Otello has not probed for epic profundity. His Rodolfo in the Music Center "Boheme" seemed to function, much of the time, on automatic pilot. His recording of "Fledermaus," in which he not only conducts but also sings Alfredo, is a joke for the wrong reasons.
But his Hoffmann on this occasion looked and sounded wonderful.
He played the tortured, idealistic, lovesick, alcoholic poet with rare urgency and realistic ardor. This Hoffmann brooded and scowled magnificently, but he could smile, too.
Although Domingo rose nobly to the grandiose challenges, he also savored telling details. When, for instance, the adored mechanical doll threatened literally to unwind in mid-aria, he made the smitten hero look elsewhere. This Hoffmann did not happen to observe the crucial contretemps because he was too busy fiddling with his rose-colored glasses. For once, the hero didn't seem like a total fool for being so obviously duped.
Vocally, the Spanish tenor found a graceful fusion of suavity and fervor. He sustained the high tessitura without flinching and mustered an imposing ring for the mighty climaxes. He pointed the text of the Kleinzach narrative with crusty whimsy, and, despite Plasson's hasty tempo, brought poignancy to the rapture of "O Dieu, de quelle ivresse."
James Morris exulted in the macabre force and the assorted dark guises of Hoffmann's quadruple nemesis. His characterization was always crisp and his tone usually heroic. He made a legato tour de force of "Scintille, diamant" (transposed as per basso tradition), despite the dizzy distraction of constantly, frantically whirling lights projected all over the stage.
Susan Quittmeyer emerged prettily boyish yet darkly sensuous as the long-suffering, long-sympathetic Nicklausse. She remained unflappably dapper, quizzical and charming from narrative disaster to narrative disaster. As the Muse, she articulated the French melodrame with authentic finesse.
For the three anti-heroines, Terence McEwen, the beleaguered boss of the company, turned to young singers who have come up through ranks.
Tracy Dahl introduced a genuinely beguiling little Olympia, her cute-automaton tricks irresistible and her stratospheric tricks--some added above and beyond the coloratura call--astonishing. Nancy Gustafson made Antonia willowy yet fragile, her high soprano tone as radiant as her long blond tresses.
Mary Jane Johnson proved less imposing as a hard-as-nails, would-be-sex-bomb Giulietta who attempted a high E-flat at the end of the Septet but shouldn't have.
Francis Egerton played the four servants with fine dramatic point, invoking the blissfully crazed aura of a Harpo Marx who had somehow bumbled into the wrong comedy. He disappointed only in Frantz's arietta, which might have benefited from a bit more singing and a bit less dancing.
The supporting players included Philip Skinner as a neatly sinister Schlemil, Gwynne Howell as a nicely sonorous Crespel and Daniel Harper as an amiably generalized Spalanzani. David Pittsinger caught the eye in the nimble, fleeting duties of the tavernkeeper. Cristiane Young provided the lush mezzo-soprano behind the supernumerary behind the portrait of Antonia's mother.
The chorus, trained by Ian Robertson, performed with exquisite giddiness in the doll's chamber, with lush abandon at the Venetian courtesan's ball and with macho bravado in Luther's tavern.
It was, in all, a good night at the opera.