Part of the intrigue of attending a new production of "Tales of Hoffmann" is not knowing exactly what you will get. The opera was left unfinished at Offenbach's death in 1880 -- or, more accurately, there was a finished, compromised version that had spoken dialogue instead of recitatives and a not-quite-finished grand-opera revision that Offenbach wanted all along. Which means every performing version is a patch job, including recitatives and numbers by other composers as well as material taken from other Offenbach scores.
Modern musicology has no intention of letting up on the process, most recently with Fritz Oeser and Michael Kaye competing to see who could get more bits from Offenbach sketches into their editions, and creating a work of Wagnerian length, if not scope. Kaye's additions, which were unveiled by Los Angeles Opera for its 1988 production, seem to be the ones that have caught on for now.
Even so, every director likes to pick and choose, which is what Marta Domingo has done for a new L.A. Opera staging, a co-production with the Kirov Opera and the Washington Opera that arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday night.
"Tales of Hoffmann" relates a poet's mad quest for love. It is nothing new in opera, but the way Offenbach set out to do it is. In what now looks remarkably like proto-postmodernism, the composer and his librettist, Jules Barbier, put E.T.A. Hoffmann, an extravagant 19th century German writer, into his own fantastical stories. Ever more desperate for love, Hoffmann maniacally and ineptly pursues a mechanical doll, a consumptive singer and a Venetian courtesan, his steps everywhere dogged by the devil in different disguises. Sunk in drunken, nihilistic despair, he finally returns to his poetic muse, oddly refreshed by his quixotic quests.
As Domingo has shown in previous productions for husband Placido's company, she likes to add her own twists to stories. She doesn't update, but she fiddles in other ways, especially when she can exploit flamboyant melodrama. She gets a chance to do that here in the tale of Antonia, the dying singer. Offenbach intended it to be the middle act. But it wound up at the end until Oeser and Kaye found enough material to make the Venetian act a substantial, cynical conclusion. Domingo returns to the old, more sentimental ways.
Mostly, though, what the director, a former singer, likes to do is give singers plenty of leeway. Sometimes that's a favor to them, and sometimes it isn't. Hoffmann has a large cast with several fine performers, so she wins more than she loses this time around.
Of the three soprano roles, Sumi Jo, as the mechanical doll, Olympia, is the most spectacular. Although her slapstick routine doesn't rise any further than silent-film hamming, her coloratura is so amazingly spot-on that this sometimes mechanical-seeming singer proved a virtuosic self-parodist, with only the cutesy curtain call going too far.
Milena Kitic, a mezzo-soprano pushing into soprano territory, is voluptuously seductive Giulietta in the Venetian act, and it is a pity that the full extent of the Kaye findings were not included in this scene, although 3 1/2 hours in the theater is plenty long already. In the Antonia tale, it starts to feel very long indeed, as Domingo does away with irony by allowing (encouraging?) Andrea Rost to squeeze the last bit of emotion from the dying singer.
Provided with a bit more subtlety, Samuel Ramey's portrayal of the four devil characters might have been just right. As it is, he remains his usual commanding vocal and theatrical presence, even if it takes him longer to fully warm up than it once did. And he shows himself perfectly capable of wry humor when not asked to overdo it. Marcus Haddock proves a reliable, if one-dimensional, Hoffmann, and again he might have been more convincing if he were allowed a more sophisticated sense of parody, particularly in the lunging tavern scenes that frame the opera.
Greg Fedderly, in small character roles, is very amusing as Antonia's old, deaf servant, while Robert Tear is a delight as Spalanzani, Olympia's inventor. Elizabeth Batton, Hoffmann's muse who turns into his sidekick might be two different singers, awkward in the former role, convincing in the latter.
Scenically the production is unsettling. Giovanni Agostinucci has a taste for the tasteless, which he indulges mostly happily in a campy Venetian pavilion, but the surrealistic eyeball backdrop of Spalanzani's laboratory looks forced, while the German scenes (the tavern and Antonia's Munich apartment) are gloomy. A bit a of silly Romanticism that actually works, however, is Hoffmann's final, muse-inspired apotheosis in heaven.
There is a lot musically to hold together, and Emmanuel Villaume, the conductor, gets full credit for his firm control over the long evening. The chorus copes.
'Tales of Hoffmann'
Where: Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Saturday, Dec. 14 and 21, 1 p.m.; Dec. 4, 8 and 18, 7:30 p.m.
Contact: (213) 365-3500