Nineteenth Anniversary

Wednesday Dave and I celebrated our nineteenth anniversary.

When I was writing my libretto for Stories by Hoffmann, I needed to write a lyric for Hoffmann to sing to Giulietta that would express his yearning for a kind of love that could follow all the disillusions he had suffered with his first two loves. (Unfortunately, the poor guy has his worst disillusionment of all still ahead of him, because Giulietta is planning to betray him in the most devastating way possible, but he doesn’t know this yet and his words to Giulietta have to be deeply sincere.) I found the right words for Hoffmann when I thought about my own relationship with Dave. Hoffmann’s lyric ends:

A smile that knows regret,
A laughter laced with rue,
A heart both wise and true:
All these I’ve found in you.

More than anything else I’ve written, those four lines are for Dave.

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Quick the Night Flies

Jeremy Knight videotaped our production of The Tales of Hoffmann and has posted a clip from the Giulietta tale on YouTube. (There won’t be a recording available for sale, though.)

This will be an unfamiliar moment and an unfamiliar aria to anyone who knows the opera only from the grand opera version. I’ve explained more about this in the program notes I wrote for the production; the short version is that my version of the Giulietta tale is structured differently from any earlier version. The music is Offenbach’s, but originally written for another opera. (The same opera, in fact, that he himself borrowed his own Barcarolle from, which may be why this aria seems to fit very naturally with the rest of the music in the tale.)

I had a number of motives in restructuring the tale this way. I wanted my version of the tale to make dramatic sense from beginning to end (something no earlier version really does, in my completely unbiased opinion), and I wanted to end with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s own bleak conclusion to the story that the act is based on. To make this work dramatically, I felt it was important that Giulietta have an aria here.

An aria that Offenbach actually wrote for Giulietta in this act turned up in a bunch of manuscripts in the 1970s, but it hadn’t been published yet when I was writing the libretto ten years ago. It had been recorded, though, and I’d already decided it didn’t have the right character to work with the way I wanted to structure the story. It’s a lightweight, jaunty coloratura aria, and I didn’t think the Hoffmann who’d just sung the drinking song at Giulietta’s party was going to be won over so easily by that kind of charm. To seduce a man that bitter, Giulietta needs to present herself as a woman who is suffering deeply over a similar heartbreak in her own past.

In this song, Giulietta (played by Angela Cadelago) is pretending to be unhappy and trapped in her life to gain the sympathy of Hoffmann (Adam Flowers) — just one more step in her scheme to steal his reflection.

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.)

Another Review, and More

Ooh, a terrific review from San Francisco Classical Voice, plus a separate feature article about the production on the website’s home page. From the review:

Berkeley Opera’s performance of The Tales of Hoffmann, which opened Saturday at the Julia Morgan Center, is a resounding success.

Jacques Offenbach’s opera, unfinished when he died, has been performed in widely different editions. Librettist David Scott Marley, benefitting from recent discoveries of Offenbach’s sketches for the last act, has returned to the original librettist’s work and also to the three actual tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann on which the opera is based.

Marley’s version makes convincing sense of the opera, and with its use of spoken dialogue is well adapted to the Julia Morgan space. He has returned to Offenbach’s original order of the three acts, and has eliminated music written by other composers. And the libretto abounds in delightful wordplay and audacious rhymes.

Yay! Raves for everybody!

From the home-page feature:

The juxtaposition between emergent technology and the much more human, romantic themes are in part what led [director Phil] Lowery to use as a palette for this production the increasingly popular aesthetic of “steampunk.” Originally used as the name for a type of speculative fiction writing, the term now refers to artistic works and fashions incorporating the aesthetics and elemental limitations of the 19th century with more-modern concepts or futuristic fantasies. … For this production, it includes the presence of Victorianesque costumes with various gadgets and set pieces that give simultaneous nods to both old and new, like a remote control crank, complete with joystick, for the doll Olympia. Also, since this version includes the often-omitted “Violin Aria” for Nicklaus, Robért and Lorna Shashinda of the local Bear Paw Fiddles created a special “Steampunk” violin.

A nice posting, too, on the Opera-L email list:

Wanted to alert Bay Area folks that Berkeley Opera has put together a very good production of Tales of Hoffmann, with a clever English adaptation by David Scott Marley. It comes together very well -- singing, acting, orchestral playing, costumes, sets. Three more performances this week. I'll leave the reviewing to someone with more expertise -- I enjoyed it a great deal!

The Tales of Hoffmann

Berkeley Opera will be reviving my adaptation of Offenbach and Barbier’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann in February of next year. We’ve got a terrific cast. We originally did this nine years ago, so of course as I look fresh at the libretto after being away from it for nine years, I now see a number of places where a line of spoken dialogue could be tightened or made sharper or less clichéd, or where a word in the lyrics could be changed to something else to sing better on the note, that sort of thing.

I promised everyone that I’d be done with my revisions by the end of September, and I just barely made it. But it also meant that I got further backed up on my email again. In January Dave and I moved to a new place, and the move took much more time and effort than I’d expected, so that by March I was something like 800 messages behind, and that’s after trashing or archiving the ones that don’t require any further action. That was 800 messages that still needed action.

In July I got my inbox down to zero, though that just means having processed the messages into to-do lists, not necessarily having done whatever actions they call for. The truly urgent stuff got done, but I still have 30 or 40 letters to respond to, a big ol’ pile of stuff to read, and so on.

And now in September, while spending most of my free time on revisions to Hoffmann, I let the inbox back up again. But in the last few days I got it down to about 150 messages again.

My task for October is to make a copy of the score we used nine years ago, the one I whited out all the French words and wrote all my new words into, and make the revisions to that. Hopefully it won’t take me as many hours as the revisions themselves did — it ought to be cut-and-dried work, unlike the open-ended process of writing lyrics, on which you can pretty much spend as much time as you have available. There are always compromises I’ve made that I can keep revisiting and changing my mind about forever — which is best, the version of this line that is a little clichéd but it’s clear and sings well, or the version that says exactly what I’d like to say but puts a closed vowel on a high note, or the version that contains a really clever play on words but has the awkward consonant cluster on the rapid notes? Actually, the problem isn’t knowing which is best — better smooth than clever, always — but it’s amazing how much time I can spend trying to revise one of the flawed versions trying to get it to be both smooth and clever. Sometimes I find it, and sometimes I just go back to the first version, the one that just sings well and clearly on the notes.

Last Sunday Berkeley Opera gave an intimate little concert at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland (astonishingly beautiful place, by the way, and designed by Julia Morgan — Dave and I want to go back for a tour), including members of the cast of the upcoming production singing excerpts from my Hoffmann adaptation. The singers were excellent. I was especially grateful that Paul Murray took the trouble to learn my new lyrics for Lindorf’s opening aria, as I’d revised about a quarter of it just a month ago. The new words sounded very good for him, which was a relief. I never really know for sure how well my lyrics are going to work till I can hear them sung by someone else, and preferably the one who is going to be performing them on stage. Nine years ago, I followed the original libretto and wrote Lindorf as being in his fifties, and the lyrics referred to his creaking joints and unattractive figure. But Paul is young and handsome — I’m not sure how young but he looks early thirties to me — and I couldn’t see how we were going to make him up in a small theater to look that old without also looking ridiculous. So for this production Lindorf can be a young financier in his early thirties, and I removed the references to his advanced age from the lyrics. And Paul sang the words very effectively — he’s a good actor as well as singer.

Old version:

I may not be young and inspiring.
My figure may not be attractive.
My mind, though, is still very active —
      Very active!
My joints may creak, and yet my brain
Is nimble at acquiring
Whatever I may wish to gain,
Whatever I’m desiring:
A horse a train, a rare champagne,
A woman I’m admiring …

New version:

The ladies don’t find me inspiring.
My soul is not brooding or tragic.
And yet I do have my own magic —
      My own magic!
My banks and bonds, though dull and plain,
Work wonders in acquiring
Whatever I may wish to gain, etc.

The rest of the numbers were excellent, too. Angela Cadelago, who will play Stella and her three incarnations in Hoffmann’s tales, was terrific with the coloratura in Olympia’s song. She and Sara Couden, who will play Luther’s wife and Antonia’s mother, sang the barcarole that opens the tale of Giulietta, and all three sang the final trio from the tale of Antonia. I haven’t done any significant revising of those lyrics, so I could relax and stop worrying and just enjoy the singing.

I’m taking a break from Hoffmann this weekend, and then I start working on updating the score.