A simple white linen suit, of the sort European men commonly wore to stroll in during summers long ago. A blue shawl-like scarf. A black coat.
Such is the attire of Hoffmann, the mesmerizing raconteur whose fanciful yarn-spinning is at the center of Seattle Opera’s revival of composer Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”
But while clothes may make the man, one of the things that make this perennially popular work so engaging and colorful is its potential for vibrant costuming.
“The costumes are very special for ‘Tales of Hoffmann,’ ” confirms German costume designer Marie-Therese Cramer, who created the apparel for Seattle Opera’s 2005 hit version of the Offenbach work, and has returned to make adjustments for the production’s current revival.
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“ ‘Hoffmann’ is really three operas, because it has three love stories with three ladies in different countries. The first lady is not a human being, but a kind of robot, a doll. The second is a young woman, quite normal. The third is a Venetian courtesan.”
The character of the poet narrator (sung in this revival by William Burden in the gold cast, Russell Thomas in the silver) is based on the early 19th-century writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, and several of his stories form the basis for Jules Barbier’s French libretto.
Speight Jenkins chose to end his well-praised and prolific, 30-year tenure as director of Seattle Opera with the revival. (Jenkins retires in September and will be succeeded by British stage director Aidan Lang.)
“It is a thrill to bring back our production of ‘The Tales of Hoffmann,’ ” Jenkins said in a recent Seattle Opera blog post. “It was funny, moving, and magical in 2005, and I expect this revival to be even better.”
Dressing the show
As the character of Hoffmann regales students in a tavern with stories about his footloose wanderings and his three lost loves, Cramer had to clothe them in the several difference locales vividly evoked by scenic designer Robert Dahlstrom.
“When we did it in 2005, there were three ladies playing Hoffmann’s lovers. This time there is one singer who is doing all three roles,” notes Cramer. French soprano Norah Amsellem takes up the challenge, with American singer Leah Partridge doing the honors in the alternate cast.
“Between the changes of costume there’s not so much time, and you have to change the whole look from act to act — the wig, the clothes, everything.”
Though the opera debuted in Paris in 1881, “we tried to make it not too old fashioned in the look,” Cramer says. “ At that time there were a lot of inventors, a lot of artists trying new things. I wanted to get into this strangeness, so it’s a little bit Edgar Allan Poe, a world of mystery, and fantasy, and strange things happening.”
Cramer and director Chris Alexander put that spin in the opera’s first act, a flashback to Hoffmann’s youthful romance with a pretty automaton, Olympia. Often she is portrayed as an old-fashioned doll.
“I wanted to get away from that ‘cute’ look. So she wears a suit made out of golden plates, tied altogether with ribbons. You see that parts of her body are sewn together,” Cramer said.
“The body is a bit like the robot character of Maria in the [silent science-fiction] movie, ‘Metropolis.’ There is one scene in the film where she’s dancing, and I had this idea of Olympia wearing a skirt where there are a lot of pearls and golden metals and it’s all moving and shimmering.”
For the third act of “Hoffmann,” set in Venice, figures in 18th-century paintings by Italian artists Canaletto and Pietro Longhi were influences on the costumes fit for a fancy-dress Venetian ball. The women are in elegant ballgowns and pastel-plumed headdresses, the men garbed in pale waistcoats and tricorner black hats. And, of course, everyone wears the white masks typical of such revels.
“Every designer loves to do this opera,” says Cramer, “and it is great to do it again here. Seattle Opera has such a good costume shop.”
Even that white suit, refitted for this run, is special.
“Hoffmann is traveling around the world,” Cramer explains, “and he feels at home everywhere. He’s like someone from show business, a singer — who can wear whatever, and everyone says, ‘Oh wow! This is great, next time I’ll get a white suit!’ It’s an off-white linen, kind of scrunched, like he’s been traveling around in it for a long time.”
Indeed he has.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org