Jacques Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann has had a bumpy ride to its pride of position in the current French repertoire. The list of setbacks reads almost like one of the macabre tales of E.T.A Hoffmann himself on whose famous stories and characters the opera is based. 

Perhaps the worst of these tribulations, artistically speaking, was a theater fire seven years after the premiere, whichconsumed the original orchestral parts of the four act version. Musical scholars, trying to divine the composer’s original intentions, have set upon Hoffmann with a will that would make Howard Carter look positively hesitant.

Since the 1960’s official (or un-) performance editions have been prepared by Fritz Oeser, Richard Bonynge, Michael Kaye, and Jean-Christophe Keck. L.A. Opera actually presented the American premiere of Kaye’s first excavations in 1988 directed by Frank Corsaro with our Intendant and resident bari-tenor in the lead and Julia Migenes-Johnson tackling all of the heroines. That performance was my first Hoffmann in the theater.

Last night the road got even bumpier on the way to the opening night of L.A. Opera’s revival of their 2002 production which was shared with Washington National Opera and the Mariinsky theatre. Diana Damrau, making her debut with the company, was initially announced to sing all four of Hoffmann’s loves with her husband the bass-baritone Nikolas Testé as the four villains.

Early in March it was then circulated that La Damrau, owing to a nasty bout of bronchitis and a string of necessary cancellations, had decided to concentrate solely on the Antonia act. L.A. Opera scrambled and found the formidable Kate Aldrich available to play the courtesan Giulietta and local favorite and coloratura extraordinaire So Young Park for the automaton Olympia.

All seemed well until Placido Domingo stepped in front of the curtain Saturday night. Greeted by the kind of thunderous ovation any General Director would envy he reminded us that a pre-curtain speech usually means “changes.” He then announced that Testé was suffering a horrible cold and, although he had every intention of performing a very complicated staging to his best abilities, his role would be sung from the pit by Wayne Tigges who had been found available just the day before.

Moments later Placido popped into the lead position in the pit and proceeded to conduct a very vigorous account of the prelude and we had curtain up on the Nuremberg tavern where our story begins and ends. Champagne bubbles floated down from the rafters as the offstage chorus voiced the spirits of alcohol and our hero for the evening staggered onto the stage in the form of Vittorio Grigolo.

Fresh from his recent Met success’ as Gounod’s Romeo and Massenet’s Werther I think the French repertoire finds his full lyric voice at its best. This fluent and flexible performer recounted of the “Légende of Kleinzach” walking across the stage impossibly crouched like a toad at the start of each verse.

His dulcet and surprisingly tender delivery of the romantic central portion of the showpiece even brought a surprise ovation. Blessed with one of those voices that always sounds like it’s hitting the sweet spot, he’s not afraid to use it and the extrovert Hoffmann makes a perfect fit for his excess of personality.

At the scene’s close, in a stunning coup de theatre, the contained tavern set drew back into the unknown depths of the Dorothy Chandler stage as the toy maker’s workshop was revealed in the front. Spalanzani, the absurdly funny Rodell Rosel, was joined and his assistant Cochenille, also played as an automaton, the exceedingly able Christophe Mortagne.

To no one’s surprise, Ms. Park’s Olympia walked away with the entire act as a wild whirlagig of a mechanical doll with all the anticipated vocal fireworks and decorations dispatched with an exciting ease. It’s a sizeable voice for this repertoire and, still (thankfully) a member of the young artist’s program here, her recent appearances as Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Blondchen bode well for a major career.

The Act II curtain went up, a bit surprisingly, on what resembled that Northern Italian city off the Adriatic. Where Giovanni Agostinucci’s set and costumes had shown a lovely Maurice Sendak influence previously it now gave way to a relentless overlay of silks and sequins in blues and greens. With Alan Burrett’s lighting bathing the lower portion of the stage in a languorous aquatic shimmer it actually looked far more like The Venetian in Vegas.

I have been a fan of mezzo Aldrich ever since I saw her “here’s spit in your eye” Amneris from Busetto on DVD ten years ago. It’s a beautiful voice with a firm core and a rich purple sound. Alas she was bedecked in a sparkling emerald green dress with voluminous caftan sleeves that she tenaciously flounced across the stage. At least they matched her bejeweled and feathered headdress (did I say Vegas?)

Seriously I haven’t witnessed operatic vamping like this since Eleanor Parker in Interrupted Melody. A very lovely, if a mite too fast, barcarolle and then the “reflection duet” (only one verse) with Grigolo upped the level of excitement just in time for a thunderous reading of the Septet.

I wish someone would include the brief aria for Giulietta that appears on the EMI recording with Cambreling conducting,”Qui connait donc la souffrance” right before the duet. It doesn’t appear in the official Kaye edition but I swear I recall it from that long ago LA Opera performance. It’s got a very evocative tune and climax plus it would give poor Giulietta something resembling a solo.

The surprise reversal of the last acts became abundantly clear when Damrau was halfway through her lovely opening aria about the “tourterelle.” At each ascending climax where the music stops abruptly she would suddenly touch her chest as if in too much pain to continue. As the scene progressed every time Antonia would start “singing out” she would fall desperately into a fever dream of her own glory complete with grand operatic gestures and then suddenly pull back in in overwhelming pain.

She is so vivid onstage and I can’t recall the last time I saw so detailed and natural a characterization from a singing actor. In a role where most sopranos are only doing the fainting Damrau’s energy was literally a revelation. She imbued every musical phrase with a life of its own including two of the juiciest trills it’s ever been my pleasure to hear. Ms. Damrau was the whole package and she’s far more exciting in person than I anticipated.

Mr. Grigolo, already a man of high energy, kept up with her. Especially in their duet “pourtant o ma fiancée.” I did notice earlier, however, his falling back on his lovely head voice briefly during the middle of the Septet and later in the trio with Crespel and Dr. Miracle. Either falling off the horse technically, which happens, or pacing himself with a little rest when he thought no one was listening.

The set here was both theatrically effective and grandiose but dramatically puzzling: a rooftop artist’s studio with a massive skylight overlooking Munich and enchanted doorways upstage center and then left and right. I’m sorry to say that the trick of Antonia’s Mother is telegraphed too far in advance to surprise. On the plus side Mortagne’s turn as Franz was a comic cameo masterpiece and his couplets included a surprise ending.

Throughout the evening both Mr. Testé from the stage and Mr. Tigges in the pit gave excellent performances of the four villains and it’s a credit to both gentlemen that it was never as jarring an effect as you might imagine. I cannot fathom the difficulty or pressures of either situation. Bravo.

Lindsay was the beneficiary of the majority of the musical restorations as The Muse / Nicklausse including her opening aria as the Muse and the Apotheosis finale,”On est grand par l’amour” added.   There was also a comic piece in place of the usual “Vois sous l’archet frémissant” in the Antonia act which I don’t recall hearing before. It made fun of Hoffmann’s infatuations even so far as to mimic Olympia’s aria and Ms. Lindsay’s performance of it brought down the house.

The credits say that the production is “conceived and directed” by Marta Domingo. I’m sure by now Mrs. Domingo has sat through enough Hoffmann’s to know what she thinks works and what doesn’t but I find the musical choices here uneven. I missed the new trio in the Olympia act and there’s been so much more music uncovered for Giulietta it’s like she’s stranded at the Met in 1955. Other than that it’s an energetic staging, tells the story well, and is exceedingly handsome.

I found Maestro Domingo in the pit far more lively and fleet than usual and there were actually moments where I wanted him to slow down a bit to savor the music. He’s always an excellent accompanist and alert to his singer’s needs. I didn’t find the kind of transparency in sound that’s ideal in the French repertoire even though the L.A. Opera Orchestra played very well. The chorus did superb work and seemed luxuriously large with a mighty sound. The men in the tavern where especially rousing.

I must ask your indulgence while I mention Mr. Grigolo’s curtain call. The man sucks all the air from the room and at the Dorothy Chandler that’s no small feat. He knelt. He kissed the stage with his hand. He mimed ripping his heart from his chest and throwing it out into the audience. He knelt in front of Mrs. Domingo and kissed her hand (and you could tell she was tickled.) The prosciutto is cut thick with this one.

So if only for the magnificent performances of Ms. Damrau and Mr. Grigolo this Tales really shouldn’t be missed. Just a side note. At the beginning of the evening L.A. Opera flashes the major donors for the production on the supertitle screens. When the slide came up that mentions the National Endowment of the Arts there was an enormous ovation throughout the theater and with it the heart rose for a moment in hope.