Lyric Opera Spins Hoffmann’s Woes into Glorious Musical Drama

Poor Hoffmann is unlucky in love, but his woeful tales give the world magnificent music.

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 57th season and the Civic Opera House rang out with “The Tales of Hoffmann,” packed with Jacques Offenbach’s familiar melodies, one more glorious than the next.

The drunken protagonist is foiled by a succession of beautiful women—some false, some true. Tenor Matthew Polenzani triumphs in this role. He has a strong, brilliant voice, which deepens as his character ages, though he never achieves wisdom.

His loves, ah, his loves! First he is smitten by the porcelain Olympia, a mechanical doll dressed like a rococo statuette. She is played hilariously by the adorable soprano Anna Christy, who hits those nearby with her mechanical arms and never misses a high note.

Next is the doomed Antonia, played by soprano Erin Wall, an alum of the Lyric’s Ryan Center who is now singing internationally. She dies just after her poignant aria, during which she casts the pages of her songbook around her on the floor.

Hoffmann’s life is manipulated by his nemesis, bass-baritone James Morris, who was Wotan in Lyric’s 2004-2005 “Ring” cycle. He plays three villains: love rival Lindorf; Dr. Miracle, who poisons Antonia, and Dapertutto, who entices the diva Giulietta to steal Hoffmann’s image in the mirror, thus imperiling his soul. Soprano Alyson Cambridge embodies that role, which includes the beautiful “Barcarolle.”

Through it all Hoffmann’s faithful buddy Nicklausse, played by mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, a second year Ryan Opera Center member, more than holds her own with the experienced singers on stage.

Lyric’s superior male chorus brackets the drama, singing in the beer garden at the beginning and at the sad conclusion, when Hoffmann—now older but still drinking—passes out, just as his current love, Stella, played by Emily Birsan, arrives.

Lyric’s orchestra, led by French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, spins the score’s fragile filagree into a varied and harmonious tapestry. The set, a giant arch suggesting Helmut Jahn’s circle in the Ogilvie Transportation Center, is designed by Ezio Frigerio.

“Hoffmann” is a marvel of song and stagecraft and a splendid opening to Lyric’s season.

“The Tales of Hoffmann” plays at October 5-29 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Call 312-332-2244, ext. 5600, or visit