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The Tales Of Hoffmann

(Schauspielhaus, 178 Seats; E16 ($19.75) Top)

VIENNA A Schauspielhaus Wien/Grand Theatre de la Ville Luxembourg production of a musical in two acts after an opera with music by Jacques Offenbach, libretto by Jules Barbier. Directed and musical concept by Barrie Kosky. Musical director and arrangements, Jorg Ulrich Krah.

Hoffman - Ramin Dustdar
Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta - Ruth Brauer
Coppelius, Miracle, Dapertutto - Martin Niedermair
Niklausse - Karola Niederhuber
Woman with pocketbook, Crespel, Pitichinaccio - Barbara Spitz
Woman with helmet, Antonia's Mother, Madam - Tania Golden
Spalanzani, Nurse, Schlemil - Melita Jurisic
Schoolboy, Nurse, Madam's Son - Daniel Williams
Sweaty Man, Nurse, Croupier - Florian Carove
Cochenille, Nurse, Cowboy - Martin Bermoser


Long before Baz's Broadway "Boheme" went bust, audiences were bouncing to ballads of Borodin and Bizet gussied up as "Kismet" and "Carmen Jones" (and let's not forget Verdi's biggest flop of 1952, "My Darlin' Aida"). Australian director and wild man on the piano Barrie Kosky has returned to a formula practiced by the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Wright & Forrest, reworking a famous opera for contemporary auds not quite ready to make that big leap to the Met. "The Tales of Hoffmann" is a cheeky, bold, cynical and totally loving adaptation of Offenbach's incomplete masterwork.

Kosky adheres admirably to the score in a reduction for seven musicians, but gives the tunes new twists as klezmer dances, tangos, rumbas and torch songs, occasionally delivering vocal lines exactly as written when Offenbach needs neither parody nor simplification.

Accommodations for the immensely talented non-operatic cast include scat singing in place of coloratura and a kind of tongue-waggling babble for some passages in the servant Frantz's aria, performed at breakneck speed by a quartet of bored nurses. The "Barcarole," one of the most beloved melodies of all time, is rendered as a third stream jazz duet between the madam of a whorehouse and her transvestite son, culminating in a Tina Turner-esque vocal apocalypse.

Since Offenbach died before his only opera's premiere in 1881, no one is quite certain of what he intended or exactly how much he wrote (posterity has revealed that several of the hit tunes were written by others, added to "improve" the unfinished score). Kosky keeps the tradition going by interpolating, among other things, a Schumann lullaby and a snatch of Dolly Parton's "Nine to Five" (sung by the whorehouse's midnight cowboy). Since Offenbach's Hoffmann is first seen waiting for a date with a soprano singing in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," we get two numbers from that opera, too.

The production is surreal, raucous, raunchy and totally in keeping with the mood of the macabre, grotesque, phantasmagoric writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann, on whose stories the work is based. Kosky delves into Hoffmann's psyche -- each act opens with the poet deep in dreams -- using his trio of nemeses (Coppelius, Miracle and Dapertutto) as alter egos in his quest for the ideal woman.

Never straining in nearly three hours onstage, Ramin Dustdar's Hoffmann bounces from explosive to tender to ridiculous in a triumphant tour de force. Capitalizing on his versatile, expressive face (those big brown eyes speak volumes!) and sublimely sweet tenor, Dustdar is physically abandoned, eloquent and heartrending. He sings most of his difficult music exactly as Offenbach wrote it, and many an opera singer could learn nuances of interpretation, phrasing, and pointers on vocal technique from his bravura perf.

No less astounding is Ruth Brauer as the incarnations of Hoffmann's fantasy woman: The automaton Olympia delivers her aria as a bump-and-grind showgirl with a pole-dance finale and notes unheard since the heyday of Yma Sumac; as the dying Antonia, she is painfully vulnerable, barely whispering from a hospital bed, but dazzling in her impassioned duets with Dustdar; cold-hearted Giulietta is a glamorous whore out to rob Hoffmann of his soul.

Cast against type, handsome blond Martin Niedermair has a field day as the villains, particularly with his otherworldly, erotic performance of Dapertutto's "diamond" aria.

With the plot (and cast and scenery) out of the way, Dustdar and Niedermair tie things up with Mozart's "La ci darem la mano" sung so sweetly and delicately, the audience was afraid to breathe. A moment of wonder and transcendent beauty, it is a heart-stopping finale to a revolutionary evening of music theater.

Set and lighting, Michael Zerz; costumes, Alfred Mayerhofer. Opened Sept. 10, 2005. Reviewed Sept. 13. Running time: 2 HOURS 45 MIN.