Hoffmann's tales fly

In a performance reminiscent of Peter Pan, soprano Hye Jung Lee stopped the show on opening night of the San Francisco Opera's production of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” brilliantly singing Olympia's famously difficult aria — while levitating.

Olympia, a mechanical doll, is one of four women bewitching the title character of Jacques Offenbach's 1881 work, described by the composer as a “fantastical opera.”

Lee, a Merola Program alumna who earned ovations last year as Madame Mao in John Adams' “Nixon in China,” floated around (without wires showing) until just before the end of the aria, when catapultlike machinery and the stagehands operating it were revealed.

Then, wearing a floor-length skirt hiding inline skates, she glided around the stage while dazzling with the required E-flats, even interpolating a couple of high F's. If Cirque du Soleil ever tackles Offenbach, director-costumer Laurent Pelly and Lee should be on the marquee.

This ambitious San Francisco-Barcelona co-production (with complex and eye-catching yet busy sets by Chantal Thomas), rises above a century's worth of heated arguments about how to perform the opera. The composer died before the premiere, leaving incomplete instructions.

Now, after only five previous productions in the San Francisco Opera's 90-year-history, this integral edition by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck — music scholars who invested decades of research into the work — is the most complete.

It is also the longest, running 3½ hours, including two intermissions,

It is splendid. At Tuesday's opening, conductor Patrick Fournillier coaxed a consistently vibrant and well-balanced sound from the orchestra while the opera chorus directed by Ian Robertson sang with elan and gusto, although there were occasional disconnects between the orchestra and chorus.

Lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani triumphed through the long and demanding title role, hitting some powerful high notes. His acting was committed and effective — no easy task because the puzzling role moves between fantasy and reality.

Christian Van Horn was a splendid, tall, menacing, full-voiced devil-in-four-manifestations, and Angela Brower also stood out in the dual role of Hoffmann's companion and muse.

Natalie Dessay was an affecting Antonia, while Irene Roberts as Giulietta, and Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino (in her main-stage debut as Stella), nicely led a score of other singers, including numerous Adler fellows.


The Tales of Hoffmann

Presented by the San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Friday, 7:30 p.m. June 20, June 27 and July 3, 2 p.m. June 23 and June 30; closes July 3

Tickets: $22 to $340

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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