Review in the SF Chron

Whew, what a weekend last weekend was. Terrific performances on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, with a whole lot of friends in the audience on Friday and a few on Sunday as well. There were a few empty seats in the back rows on Friday, but Sunday was completely sold out and Dave and I had to stand in the back of the house to watch the show. (Believe me, I don’t mind.) Sunday’s audience gave us a standing ovation, and then during the bows the cast presented Ernest Knell (our musical director) and me with a lovely gift: copies of the poster of Stella in Don Giovanni that was onstage during the show, autographed by the whole cast and framed. Oh, man, that was very, very sweet.

Last Friday morning the San Francisco Chronicle review came out. On the whole a very, very good review, though with a few odd qualifications about my libretto:

The Berkeley Opera’s lively and affecting new production of Hoffmann touches those chords with deft precision. Treading a fine line between comedy and pathos, Wednesday’s performance at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts combined first-rate musical values with a clear dramatic and verbal focus to produce a nimble portrait of artistic self-justification.

The verbal element was the province of wordsmith David Scott Marley, whose English adaptation of the text — a revision of a script first mounted in 1999 — brought forward the combination of exuberance and longing at the heart of Hoffmann. Compared with the manic inventiveness of some of Marley’s other stage creations — including The Riot Grrrl on Mars, which transposes Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers into outer space, or Bat Out of Hell, his contemporary Berkeley version of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus — this is a far more subdued affair.

Uh-oh. I think he’s saying he prefers my earlier, funnier films — I mean, librettos.

There is, by my count, only one topical allusion — the bankrupt House of Elias becomes the House of Lehman — and the giddy Gilbertian rhyming that is Marley’s trademark gift is rarely in evidence. And although the version is billed as being steeped in the vein of speculative fiction known as steampunk, that tradition showed up more in the costuming, with its emphasis on stovepipe hats and aviator goggles, than in the text itself.

But as a faithful and accessible English translation of a familiar work, this Hoffmann is hard to beat. The words fit Offenbach’s melodies as they were meant to, with the expansive emotional outpourings rendered as precisely as the quick-witted comic numbers.

I bristled a bit when I got to faithful and accessible English translation. My libretto is not a particularly faithful translation of any earlier version of Hoffmann, neither the authors’ original version nor anybody else’s later reconstruction, traditional or otherwise; that’s why I billed it as an “adaptation”. But then when I think about it, it’s pretty cool all the same that my version feels like a faithful translation to somebody who knows the opera; it means that my rather Jungian interpretation of the story and all my other changes come across as feeling well integrated with the opera as commonly done and not just sort of pasted on top of it. That is, after all, what I worked hard to try to achieve; if somebody who hasn’t had the time to compare my version side by side with previous versions comes away with the immediate impression that my version is “faithful” to their memories of other versions, then it’s a strong sign that I’ve succeeded in making it feel all of a single piece. And the rest of the review is very complimentary, so I’m happy, and I’m sure it steered quite a number of people into the theater on Friday and Sunday.

(Naughty of him to give away the House of Lehman joke, though. Before the review appeared, there was no particular reaction to the first mention of a failed bank, and we got a nice laugh later when the bank’s name was finally mentioned. At Friday’s and Sunday’s performances, though, that first mention of a bank failure got a huge laugh, long before the bank’s name was ever given. Oy. By the way, the joke was an interpolation just for this production; it had my OK but it’s not actually part of my libretto.)

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