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A trio of fantastic love stories, brought to life by one of the 19th century's finest melodists, comprise Utah Opera's opening work of the season - "The Tales of Hoffmann."

For this opera, composer Jacques Offenbach drew upon the fantasy world of E.T.A. (Ernst Theodor Amadeus) Hoffmann, a composer, writer and artist whose stories inspired such 19th century masterpieces as "The Nutcracker" of Tchaikovsky, the ballet "Coppelia" and Schumann's "Kreisleriana."Performances at the Capitol Theater on Oct. 12, 14, 16 and 19 at 8 p.m., Oct. 22 at 2 p.m., will be sung in French, with English supertitles. Tickets at $10-$30 are available at the opera box office in the theater, 533-6494. For the Sunday matinee, senior citizens and students may buy tickets at half price.

The real Hoffmann (1776-1822), a facile and prolific writer, first led literature into the realm of the bizarre. His tales of madness, horror and the weird world of supernatural spirits influenced such later writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, Heine and Dostoevsky, who borrowed plots from him.

Actually, the dissolute student-hero of Offenbach's opera is less fascinating than the small, unprepossessing but brilliant real-life Hoffmann.

This Hoffmann was born in Koenigsberg, Prussia, to a mismatched couple who quickly divorced. Descended from legally prominent families on both sides, he was raised in the family home of his mother, who devoted herself to religion while an eccentric uncle supervised Hoffmann's education in the law. Meanwhile the precocious youngster developed his musical talents and indulged his passion for the classics and the feverish popular literature of his time.

As an adult, he vacillated among bureaucratic court appointments in Germany and Poland, musical activities (he wrote 11 well-received operas and was supervisor of opera companies in Bamberg and Leipzig) and literary efforts. In 1802 he took a wife who apparently well-satisfied his needs; Hoffmann's few other romances were ideal and platonic, as were those in the opera.

Through his enormous intellectual gifts, Hoffmann eventually rose to the post of councilor of the court of appeals in Berlin, meanwhile parlaying his literary talents into a great popular success, with seven volumes of stories and one of purported memoirs - the latter containing source material for Offenbach's opera.

Hoffmann was often to be found at a favorite table in Lutter and Wegener's Berlin cafe, where he was most lucid when intoxicated, free from the loneliness and fear of life, and specters of his childhood that inspired his stories. But a lifelong addiction to the bottle led to his demise at the age of 46, wracked by deadly arthritis.

Thursday night, Utah Opera will transport its audience to Luther's Tavern where the student Hoffmann comes to carouse with his drinking companions, accompanied by his faithful friend Nicklausse. There too is the sinister Councillor Lindorf, who intercepts a note intended for Hoffmann by his inamorata, the opera singer Stella. In Lindorf Hoffmann recognizes his recurring evil genius, who takes various devilish forms in Hoffmann's three brief and disheartening love stories.

First he tells of Olympia, a mechanical doll created by the scientist Spalanzani, who hopes to sell his clever invention for a good price. Hoffmann enters and falls in love with the doll, despite Nicklausse's objections, and his appreciation is heightened by the rose-tinted glasses that Spalanzani hands him. Dr. Coppelius also enters and demands his share of the profits from the doll, whose enamel eyes he supplied.

Guests arrive to admire the accomplishments of Spalazani's "daughter," who sings a coloratura aria but must have her spring rewound at intervals. She completes her conquest of Hoffmann by dancing a giddy waltz with him, then reels off into her room. The sound of smashing machinery is heard, and Coppelius emerges laughing in triumph, for he has destroyed Hoffmann's love.

In Venice, the courtesan Giulietta is hostess at a grand ball, and she sings the famous Barcarolle with Nicklausse. Among the guests is Dapertutto, an evil schemer who offers Giulietta a great glittering diamond if she will capture for him the soul of Hoffmann, symbolized by his reflection in a mirror.

Giulietta readily agrees and ensnares Hoffmann, who quarrels with Giulietta's lover Schlemil and, using Dappertutto's sword, kills him. Horrified to see no reflection of himself in a mirror, Hoffmann rushes out, only to see Giulietta floating away in a gondola, in the arms of another.

Hoffmann's next memories are of Munich and the frail Antonia, daughter of Councillor Crespel. Also the daughter of a dead opera singer, Antonia has an ethereally beautiful voice; but she suffers from consumption and must never sing again if she wishes to live. Hoffmann joins those trying to dissuade her, but the charismatic Dr. Miracle suggests that jealousy motivates those who don't want her to sing. He conjures the voice of her dead mother to persuade her, and Antonia's voice soars higher and higher until she falls, dying.

Again in Luther's tavern, Hoffmann is by now dead drunk. He does not respond to Stella, who goes off with Lindorf; but the Muse of Poetry claims him for her own.

The talented international cast that Utah Opera has assembled for "Tales of Hoffmann" is led by Rico Serbo in the title role. Serbo returns to Utah for the fourth time, having sung "Madame Butterfly," "Traviata" and "Lucia" here previously. After six years as leading tenor with the state theater of Koblenz, guesting throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Serbo has sung in America with New York City Opera and the operas of San Diego, Pittsburgh, Michigan, Houston and Philadelphia, among others.

Baritone James Johnson makes his Utah Opera debut as Hoffmann's four nemeses. Raised in Alabama, Johnson studied at the Curtis Institute, then spent 10 years in the German and Austrian houses of Braunschweig, Graz and Cologne. "It's irreplaceable training," he said, "but I was ready to come home." Tall and commanding, Johnson has sung the Wagnerian Wotans in complete Ring cycles in Paris and Nice, also "The Flying Dutchman" and Amfortas and Klingsor in "Parsifal," and Hans Sachs in "Die Meistersinger." From here, he goes to Opera Columbus for "Don Giovanni."

Singing Giulietta and Antonia is soprano Martha Thigpen, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Ortlinde in "Die Walkeure" in 1986-87. Following apprenticeships with the Santa Fe and Chautauqua operas, she debuted professionally with Des Moines Metro Opera and has sung three seasons with New York City Opera. Tenor David Ronis, who sings multiple character roles, has appeared widely in America and Europe, including the Vienna State Opera, La Scala and the Kennedy Center.

Soprano Susan Deauvono, who sings Olympia, is a veteran of Utah Opera, having sung or understudied a dozen roles here. Likewise Laura Garff, the Nicklausse, whose U.O. roles include Mercedes in "Carmen," Suzuki in "Madame Butterfly" and Siebel in "Faust." Other Utah singers in supporting roles are William Geoglein, Luther; Dave Arnold, Spalanzani; Clayne Robison, Crespel; and Mark Child, Schlemil.

Utah Opera's music director, Byron Dean Ryan, will make his U.O. conducting debut, leading members of Utah Symphony. Ryan's former conducting, coaching and/or chorus master posts have been with the San Francisco, New York City and Cincinnati operas.

U.O. welcomes back Sarah Ventura as stage director for this production. Ventura comes for the fifth time, having staged more than 100 diverse productions throughout Europe, South America, Canada and the United States. Costumes for this lavish production are designed and constructed by Susan Memmott Allred, with lighting by M. Kay Barrell. Set design is by Allen Charles Klein of Seattle Opera.

"The Tales of Hoffmann" did not receive its premiere performance until February 1881, four months after Jacques Offenbach's death, and thereby hangs another tale.

It is generally agreed that Offenbach led the 19th century into its craze for operetta and that the Viennese Strausses, Lehar and others built upon his foundation. Offenbach supplied Paris with a quarter-century of lighthearted shows filled with pretty tunes - more than 100, with names liked "Madame Papillon," "Ba-ta-clan," "La Jolie Parfumeuse" and "La Creole." Indeed, Offenbach was part of the reason why Paris became gay Paree.

Revivals of "Orpheus in the Underworld" or "La Belle Helene," "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, "La Vie Parisienne" or "La Perichole" take place occasionally. Or you might see "Gaite Parisienne" with its lively cancan, a ballet assembled from his tunes. But it is upon "The Tales of Hoffmann," his only grand opera, that Offenbach's fame rests most securely.

As his life drew to a close, this small, balding man with the mutton-chop whiskers and pince-nez glasses decided he must leave a consequential memorial behind him, and set to work. He barely made it.

The "Tales," derived from a play of the same name by Jules Barbier, absorbed him for part of his four last years; and as ever more painful gout and arthritis took over, he worked in desperation. Identifying himself with Antonia of the "Tales," all he asked was time enough to sing before he died.

He moved from Paris to St. Germain, where three devoted friends came to share the vigil over his decline: his frequent librettists, Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac (also librettist of "Carmen"), and Albert Wolff, critic for Le Figaro. The fates smiled, for he not only finished the score, but accomplished some of the orchestration, and even attended one rehearsal.

With his idol, Mozart, Offenbach shared a common fate. Each held a pen in his hand practically until the moment of death, but in their final music (as in all else they wrote) one detects not the slightest trace of the morbidity, depression and pain that afflicted their last days.

Instead, "The Tales of Hoffmann" swells out on a lyric tide - tuneful, often funny, filled with the dramatic sweep and flow that spring from the instincts of the born musical dramatist. Despite the usual posthumous depradations, the "Tales" would have pleased Offenbach; and more than 100 years later, they still please us.