Tales of who?
Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann was, quite simply, the Tim Burton of the 1800s. Fascinated by horror and fantasy, transformations and deceptions, his stories have inspired the ballets The Nutcracker and Coppélia, and Hoffman himself is the subject and hero of Jacques Offenbach’s famous but fictitious opera The Tales of Hoffmann.
Written by that impresario of the romantic period, Jacques Offenbach, the music in The Tales of Hoffman is as light and digestible as Offenbach’s best known work, Orpheus in the Underworld. Eccentric and fun, the story revolves around a poet (Hoffman) who regales his friends with the stories of three women with whom he has been besotted, and the bizarre ways in which these ladies have exited his life.
As each bite-sized act reveals, the first lady-love, Olympia, turns out to be a robot. The second, Antonia, dies from singing too much, and the third, Giulietta, accidentally drinks poison prepared for someone else. In an advanced state of drunkenness, Hoffman realises that all three of these women are different aspects of the prima donna who is his latest obsession, and he vows never to love again, thereby freeing himself to write poetry, much to his Muse’s delight.
The Tales of Hoffman was made into a film in 1951, starring Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. “For the first time in my life I was treated to Grand Opera where the beauty, power and scope of the music was equally matched by the visual presentation,” said Cecil B. DeMille. The film was a massive critical success, receiving two Academy Award nominations.
For this production, South African opera legend Angelo Gobbato has been tempted out of retirement to direct the Cape Town Opera and the rising stars of the UCT Opera School in a production designed by Michael Mitchell and conducted by Kamal Khan. Together, these three men have been rubbing their hands with glee at tackling such an eccentric gem of a piece, not performed in Cape Town since 1998.
Written in French by a German over 100 years ago, the chances are you won’t understand a word. But please note that Cape Town Opera always provides English surtitles on a screen above the stage (something that, during the recent production of La Boheme, I pointed out to the Afrikaans octogenarian on my left and the Xhosa family on my right, to multi-lingual exclamations of relief.
And as with all Cape Town Opera productions, each performance will be preceded by a talk in the Orchestra Rehearsal Room at Artscape, 45 minutes before curtain-up.
Still not sure? Try listening to this, the dreamily romantic Barcarolle from Act 3 which you might last have heard in the soundtrack from Titanic or Life is Beautiful. And then take a look at Elvis Presley’s version in GI Blues!
Presented by Cape Town Opera in collaboration with the UCT Opera school, The Tales of Hoffman will be performed at the Artscape Theatre on 24, 27, 28 and 29 November at 7.30pm and on Sunday 25 November at 6pm. Tickets cost R 125 to R 175.