How have you prepared for your role as Hoffmann? Have you ever read the original stories that inspired the libretto by E.T.A. Hoffmann?
Owing to the fact that this version of Hoffmann is very different from ones I've been involved with before, there was a lot of new music, and dialogue to learn. As always with languages you don't speak, figuring out the meaning behind the words takes up a lot of time. And that goes not just for what I'm saying, but also for the things that are being said to you by your colleagues. I have read the E.T.A. Hoffmann stories, though I didn't revisit them for this revival here in San Francisco.
Hoffmann is a pretty complicated character. Is there anything about him that you find particularly compelling or relatable?
Compelling, yes. Relatable, not so much. Hoffmann's self-destructive streak is just too strong for him to overcome. Even when given the possibility of being with someone who could love him back (Antonia), he undermines his relationship with her by saying the price of my love for you is that you give up any dreams you had of singing. Obviously, falling in love with a doll and a courtesan are one way tickets to unhappy endings. By the time we meet Stella, he's a broken down, drunken old man who's only in his 20's. One can only guess what she might have seen in him, but there's no guessing needed for why she leaves him in the gutter. As for the relating to him, these stories are mostly fiction, and it's up to the director and the artists to fill in the blanks behind our characters motivations. The scars of the life experiences of Hoffmann that are eating away at him are thankfully far away from my own life.
Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann) with Irene Roberts (Giulietta) and surrounded by the San Francisco Opera Chorus (Giulietta's guests) in Giulietta's Palace. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
What is it like to revisit it in a new staging and production and with a different cast?
Put simply, it's a blast. As I said earlier, this version of the opera is very different from my previous experiences, so even though the story line is largely the same, how we get to the end happens in a very different way. SF Opera has put together an excellent cast, and everyone is contributing to bring it to what we hope will be an outstanding fruition. This is my third time working on a Laurent Pelly production, and he and Christian Räth make a tremendous team. They make the process of putting together a show a lot of fun, and I'm always learning and discovering new things with them.
Do you have a favorite scene or aria in the opera?
My favorite scene is the Antonia scene. Part of this is because it's the closest Hoffmann comes to real love, and the loss cuts the deepest. But beyond that, the music Offenbach wrote for Miracle is spellbinding! I wish I was a bass for the pleasure of singing THAT music!
Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann) with Natalie Dessay (Antonia). Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
What is your favorite thing about San Francisco? Any plans for your (rare) days off?
Well, I'm a golfer, and a wine lover, so I can say without doubt, my two favorite things about San Francisco are the plethora of golf courses in and around the city, and its proximity to Napa and Sonoma counties. That gives you an idea of what I'll do in between shows, I'd guess. I also love coming to San Francisco because of the people who work at this opera house, and the way they're carrying on the grand tradition that is part of this company's pedigree. They take very good care of us here, and the pride and purpose with which they run this company makes the burden of being away from home and my family a little easier to bear.