It’s a perfect storm.
A tortured artist. His muse. Three beautiful loves of his life, all gone bad. A murder. Bribery. Ghosts. Singing and dancing. And more things to hit with a stick than you ever see on a stage at one time.
Welcome to “The Tales of Hoffmann,” at Skylight Music Theatre.
What a night this Jacques Offenbach opera is as filtered through the creative and off-beat vision of Jill Anna Ponasik, the stage director who never met a chance to take the road not taken she didn’t love.
In her continuing quest to redefine what opera can mean to people who don’t already love opera, this is a show with a heightened sense of fun, a serious commitment to serious music and a story that captures everything that a great story should be.
The story opens with Hoffmann (tenor John Kaneklides) in the morass of a swamp keeping him from writing his poetry. His agony is painful to watch as he is clearly at the end of his creative rope.
Like all good romantic poets, Hoffmann is determined to write about the three women in his life whom he has loved and who have broken his heart.
His muse, Nicklausse (Diane Lane) bravely shoulders the task of helping Hoffmann shed his shroud of emptiness and convinces him to tell her the tale of each of the women, hoping that by clearing his chest and mind, he will once again be able to become the poet he knows he can be.
The first love he had was Olympia (Cicilia Davis), a beauty in the house of her father, Spalanzani (Nathan Wesselowski), an inventor. She enters, swathed in beauty but moving like a marionette without the strings. She is all jerks and jiggles and in the end it turns out she was merely a wooden mechanical doll and she is destroyed, broken apart, while breaking Hoffmann’s heart.
Next on his tour of love lost is Antonia (Susan Wiedmeyer), a sickly young woman who is forbade from singing in honor of the recent death of her mother, herself a singer of some note. Hoffmann falls hard and is full of sorrow that he can’t hear her voice. She is, eventually overwhelmed by the desire to sin, she does, and as a result, dies.
And finally there is Giulietta (Ariana Douglas), a spellbinder and a woman of opulent cachet. She collects men the way a hoarder collects dolls or spoons. She lures Hoffmann into a fight with another lover (Doug Clemens), who loses the battle. Hoffmann rushes to her room, only to see her floating away on the side of a giant bass, on her way to another conquest.
The scenic design of this play is an absolute miracle of music, acting and dancing.
On the stage are two grand pianos, a harp and a stage-wide string of percussion instruments, courtesy of the brilliant Michael “Ding” Lorenz. From a well-tuned vibraphone to an array of cymbals, wood blocks and things that go buzz, gong, bang, whoop and other arcane noises.
Lorenz, who is a Milwaukee treazure, has taken the world of drumming to a level rarely seen or heard. His work, moving side to side on the stage, is mesmerizing.
Speaking of Milwaukee treasures, Ms. Lane, who can play everything from Kimberly Akimbo to being a part of the crazed Milwaukee Opera Theatre version of The Mikado.
She is one of the few operatic singers who brings equal acting chops to any production. She can mug with the best of them and her voice transcends any conceptions someone might have about opera. I could watch and listen to her forever.
As Hoffman, Mr. Kaneklides’ tenor rings true most of the time. He’s got an evocative style and captures the longing and sorrow befalling Hoffmann. Toward the end of the production I saw he swallowed some of the higher register on occasion, but it’s a demanding role and he could easily be forgiven. He’s also very handsome and wears his tortured soul on his sleeve.
A word must also be said about Barcarolle, a piece of music that I’d wager 90% of the audience (and these readers) have heard before. It’s a famous waltz and in this production is sung by Ms. Lane and Ms. Douglas. Here’s a video of the song from another production and, thankfully, while the Skylight production is in English, this song is sung in French. I’m including it in this review just so you have a chance to listen to it, again.
You don’t have to be an opera lover to see and enjoy this production. All you have to be is a person who likes music, a great story and inventive staging.
My guess is that’s all of us.
Production credits; Stage Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; MUsic Director, Kerry Bieneman; Choreographer, James Zager; Scenic Designer, Lisa Anne Schlenker; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Costume Designer, Sonya Berlovitz; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production photographer, Mark Frohna.