Tales of Hoffmann, Music director Frank Johnson, stage direction by Phil Lowery

(l. ) Robert Vann as Hoffmann, loses hold of Olympia (Chelsea Hoffman), leaving him with her detached hand.

The Pocket Opera presents Jaques Offenbach’s”Tales of Hoffmann”, at three venues throughout the month of June.  The June 9th production, last Sunday. took place in the Gunn Theatre,  at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.  The French libretto was written by Jules Barber based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffman who is the protagonist of this story. It was Offenbach’s final work. He died in October 1884, months before the premier. This English version is by Pocket Opera founder and artistic director Donald Pippin.

The story takes place in a bar next to a musical venue where patrons go when they can’t get tickets  to hear the incomparable Stella singing the starring role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Hoffman seems to be bemoan the fact that he can’t find a girlfriend or a lover.  He has been infatuated with Stella and extols her talents and beauty while drinking umpteen cups of beer generously poured by the accommodating barkeep, Luther. Other men show up and all seem to sing about Stella. Her portrait hangs in plain sight to one side of the simple set (Daniel Yelin.)

It appears that the protagonist -in this case, Hoffmann (very effective Robert Vann) – in most plays, musicals and operas written in this era, must either change his/her identity or have a doppelganger to tell the protagonist’s story or move the plot along.  Hoffman passes out from too much drink, his doppelganger, Nicklausse (comely Whitney Steele)  changes clothes with him and begins to relate his (Hoffmann’s) three tales involving lost loves.  Nicklausse, in reality, is also his Muse, who wishes him to forget his lost love and concentrate on poetry using her, the Muse, as his inspiration and focus.

Wayne Wong (l.) as Spalanzani an a dress rehearsal with some of the cast.

The hi-light of the Opera is the appearance of Spalanzani, in the First Tale (Act I), played to perfection by character actor/singer Wayne Wong (who also plays Luther.)  He is a scientist/inventor who in Hoffman’s eyes- wearing the magical glasses made by Coppélius, Olympia’s co-creator with Spalanzani- and this act’s incarnation of Nemesis (Shouvik Mondle a Nemesis and Villain), and sold to Hoffmann- makes Olympia (the terrific and incredible Chelsea Hollow, whose high notes soar, truly out of this world) appear as a real woman.  Spalanzani is seen as her father.  Truth is revealed when Hoffmann falls and breaks his glasses, while dancing with Olympia.  At the same time, Coppélius appears, tearing Olympia apart to retaliate against Spalanzani after cheating him of his fees. An amusing scene is of Coppelius wheeling the broken Olympia on stage from the wings in a wheelbarrow.  With the crowd ridiculing him, Hoffmann realizes he loved an automaton.  Antonia (dramatic Erina Newkirk);  her mother (Marcelle Dronkers); and Rabihah Davis Dunn, as Giuletta, all have superbly beautiful voices, as well as Michal Grammer  (Crespel, Antonios father, ) who also plays Hermann and Schlemel  Another plus: the characters are well-defined, enhanced by the creative and imaginative, colorful and asymmetrical costumes by Maria Graham.  Everything seems to be a little off balance, keeping the audience guessing as to what is really going on.  The Pocket Philharmonic Orchestra headed by pianist Frank Johnson, though seated directly behind the action on the spare set, is well-integrated and does not distract from the action nor from the vocalists.  There is much conflict among the principals resulting in lies, betrayals, and resolutions which makes for an exciting, funny, delightful and fast-moving two- and- a- half hours.

The final performance is June 16 at 5 PM at the Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto.  Go to: info@pocketopera.org for tickets and information.  Or call: 415 972 8930.