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Chris Alexander and The Tales of Hoffmann

By Speight Jenkins

I first encountered the work of Chris Alexander in Mannheim, Germany. It was a very serious, absorbing production of Tännhauser, one of the best contemporary productions of this opera that I can remember. I asked him to come to Seattle Opera to direct Boris Godunov, which he handled superbly. His Fidelio was also very successful. These are all serious works. His next, Falstaff, which he also directed here which is certainly comic, but not a rollicking laugh riot, proved a then success. I mentioned to Chris that about that time I had the opportunity to see his production of The Cousin from Nowhere, or more properly, Der Vetter aus Dingsda, by Eduard Kuenneke in Mannheim. I realized then that Chris had a greater sense of humor onstage than I had realized. He managed in this light German opera to create a new Disneyland onstage and make it really work. I mentioned to Chris that I was planning Ariadne Auf Naxos, and he told me that he loved the piece and would do it for us.

Chris's work in Ariadne turned out to be both funny and properly fantastic. I thought it was one of the most convincing interpretations of that very difficult opera that I had ever seen and the only American version of it that I have seen that made the plot really clear to the audience. Ariadne goes along for two-thirds of it comic, and then suddenly it becomes very serious. In all the productions in this country I have seen, most of the audience leaves wondering "what was that about?" In our Ariadne Chris managed to keep comedy and drama moving together, and to me made the whole idea of Strauss and Hofmannsthal clear.

Though The Tales of Hoffmann is an easier work to put onstage than is Ariadne, it needs the combination of talents that Chris Alexander has demonstrated in Seattle. It must combine comedy with drama, add in a lot of the mystical or magical, and come out with what I think of as a fun evening. Hoffmann's search for his vocation, his being shepherded by the Muse toward his writing, is serious business, but with Offenbach the boulevardier is always present. Certainly the doll scene is funny, and though the death of Antonia is very serious, Dr. Miracle has elements of comedy as well as evil about him. The read on the Venetian scene is very much up to the director, but I think a dark humor is the thrust of what happens.

Chris had worked with great pleasure with Robert Dahlstrom on Ariadne and was eager to do so again. Robert was eager to design a Hoffmann. When I saw his first designs, I knew that we had to do the piece. It's a thrilling, fresh, and stimulating look at one of the most enjoyable operas I know.