I wondered, as I sat watching Marta Domingo’s season-opening Washington Opera production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, why I haven’t been tempted toward the same vitriolic response to her directing work as my colleagues have. Read any of the press on Mrs. D’s productions, here or anywhere hubby Placido Domingo has planted a flag, and you’ll get a picture of a one-woman Murder Inc. with her sights set on the art of opera itself. She’s been singled out for perpetrating more brainless, incompetent stagings than any dozen other awful opera directors working on the international scene.

And I suppose it’s that very glut of idea-challenged directors that reduces Domingo’s affronts to the merest blips on my own critical radar. Sure, she’s the boss’s wife and likely wouldn’t have such a high-profile career if her spouse’s name were, say, John Doe instead of Placido. But should she be pilloried for mediocre stagecraft, aesthetic coarseness, a shallow sense of dramaturgy, or a lack of vision when such qualities have been an industry standard in opera directing (in this country, at least) for more years than any of us wish to remember?

Opera directing, of course, is one of those jobs—such as talking someone off a ledge or doing fieldwork with flesh-eating bacteria—that requires not just boundless zeal but a very specific skill set. Most opera houses place the dramatic action at a distance from the audience that only semaphore flags can successfully bridge. Then there’s the problem of old operas that need a loving shove or two to make the leap from Victorian fashion show to theater that will engage a modern audience. And, of course, there are the singers. Overbooked, underrehearsed, and often lacking advanced training in acting, they must labor to realize their directors’ intentions while juggling acrobatic vocal writing, outlandish wigs and costumes, and, in some cases, conductors who demand unswerving eye contact, stage action be damned. Even in the best of circumstances, an opera director’s work ain’t no stroll in the park.

So what’s a director to do? Staying focused on what the opera is about and telling a clear story are good for starters. In Domingo’s case, that would mean making her Hoffmann less a grab bag of received notions of how to illustrate the piece and more an exploration of what a psychologically and emotionally complex drama this opera is deep down.

Hoffmann may have come from the pen of 19th-century France’s greatest composer of light operas, but it’s got “magnum opus” written all over it. The plot is simple: The drunken poet Hoffmann (based on real-life fantasist E.T.A. Hoffmann) regales a tavern full of students with stories of the three love affairs that ended disastrously for him and the three nemeses who brought about their demise. Throughout the relived adventures with the mechanical doll Olympia, the prostitute Giulietta, and the frail Antonia, who dies from an overdose of singing, Hoffmann is accompanied by his male friend Nicklausse, who, in the barroom scenes that frame the three flashbacks, reveals himself to be the very feminine Muse of Poetry. She drags Hoffmann away from a fourth romantic train wreck (with the opera diva Stella), convincing him to give up women and turn his transitory pain into enduring art.

Whether its silken, bejeweled score is viewed as an incongruity or a striking counterpoint to the contents of its libretto, Hoffmann has more self-delusion and self-destruction per square inch than a dozen more allegedly sober works. Any deconstructionist director worth her salt has in Hoffmann a veritable gold mine of implied alcoholism, sexual dysfunction, misogyny, narcissism, paranoia, and psychosis to plunder for her production. And even a staunch traditionalist would have to work hard to miss the opera’s curdled romanticism, mordant wit, and general aura of fever dream.

Domingo, alas, can’t seem to shake the image of Offenbach as the writer of so much can-can music, and she delivers a Hoffmann Lite, from the cutesy ballet kids impersonating the “spirits” of alcohol in the prologue all the way through the Hollywood-goddess take on the Muse at the opera’s conclusion. When the work is at its most overtly satirical, as in the Olympia scene, Domingo produces satisfying results. True enough that much of her work in that scene has the déjà vu quality of having been remembered from a host of Hoffmann productions past, but the collection of directorial and design ideas, whether original or borrowed, play well together.

Giovanni Agostinucci’s sets and costumes score points here, especially the floor-to-ceiling array of moving mechanical figures rendered in the bug-eyed style of 19th-century storybook illustrations and caricatures. It makes sense, too, to populate the drawing room of the inventor Spalanzani with herky-jerky robotic ballroom dancers and servants. But the Olympia scene makes its strongest impression in vocal terms, with baritone Alan Held—commanding in height as well as sound, and game for a bit of Christopher Lloyd-ish nonsense—making an arresting Coppelius. The much-lauded, much-recorded coloratura soprano Sumi Jo makes her company debut as the windup toy Olympia, her pixilated gait amusing, her handling of her killer aria properly dazzling and delivered with a silvery tone.

Andrea Rost also brings her burnished lyric soprano and gorgeous looks to the Opera House stage for the first time as Antonia, the doomed girl who sings an aria one time too many. Though her character requires her to send most of her performance out to the house, Rost manages to remain the most emotionally compelling presence in the cast, and her lustrous tone falls very gratefully on the ear. Held is again first-rate as Dr. Miracle, conveying villainy without undue mustache-twirling or rubbing of the hands. In design terms, the Antonia scene is rather generically melancholy, and the decision to turn an oil painting of Antonia’s mother into a statue that springs to life is a questionable one for its giggle potential alone.

But that scene is a piece of life-enhancing theater compared with the one involving Giulietta. The Venetian cathouse where she resides looks like the kind of “exotic” locale you’d find in a children’s book—safe, sexless, and outfitted with yards of diaphanous fabric and twinkly lights. As directed, this customarily sultry and disturbing episode progresses without a drop of danger or eroticism—or, for that matter, much in the way of dramatic focus or intensity. Poor Victoria Livengood is dyin’ bad in this production, her Giulietta forced to stalk Hoffmann like some silent-film vampire and then make witchy little hee-hee-hee-I’ve-got-him-now faces at the audience to make sure we don’t miss what’s going on.

Livengood—cavorting in a billowing pantsuit that covers every square inch of flesh—sings Giulietta in a full-bodied, if edgy, mezzo that serves the role well enough. But simply look across the stage and there’s Denyce Graves, in fairly sumptuous voice, effortlessly exuding pheromones and bursting voluptuously out of her ill-considered male drag as Nicklausse, of all roles. Who cast this thing, anyway? And while we’re on the subject of casting, what is C.Y. Liao doing in the scene as the villain Dapertutto, when Held, following standard procedure, should play all of the bad guys in the piece? Liao, who sings the part in a deep, suavely beautiful baritone, is a head shorter than Held, making the effect not unlike that of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, in which Wood’s towering chiropractor was dropped incongruously into the movie to substitute for the relatively diminutive Bela Lugosi, who died before filming was complete.

And as if the scene weren’t wacky enough already, Domingo ends it with a sublimely ludicrous bit of business. After Hoffmann has killed a romantic rival named—are you ready?—Schlemil and stands in shock over the body, we see a little old man in an insect costume shuffle over to the corpse, adjusting his oversized bug-eyed headdress along the way. He tilts his head back, lets out a big, stagy cackle, pauses for a moment as if unsure what to do next, then turns and shuffles offstage. Wow.

Throughout the opera, tenor Richard Leech keeps his dignity as Hoffmann, mostly by avoiding much direct emotional connection with the unfolding story. He sings in the consistently attractive, consistently loud voice that has become his trademark of late, betraying just a little of the premature vocal wear evident in some other recent performances. As for the title character’s ardor, bitterness, and manic joy, well, Leech gives no more than halfhearted hints.

The remainder of the large supporting cast is full of fine singers—especially the ever-entertaining William Parcher as Luther, the tavern keeper—and Emmanuel Villaume conducts with Gallic zest and a fine ear for instrumental detail, lifting elements from Michael Kaye’s exhaustively researched and musically fleshed-out new edition of the score and dropping them into the faster but shallower older version.

Certainly anyone attracted to this opera will see a sampling of its riches in this production. But there’s so much more to Hoffmann that seems rouged-up, glossed-over, or just plain ignored here. Like WashOp’s other current production, the more elegantly and coherently directed but no less reactionary Così Fan Tutte, this Hoffmann wears its paint-by-numbers conservatism proudly on its sleeve. But that’s become the company style (a handful of adventurous productions excepted) as well as the national style (a handful of adventurous companies excepted). It’s a helluva lot easier to retreat than to forge ahead, to throw money at a production than to think it through, to give the audience exactly what it expects than to take it to a new place. The problem isn’t Marta Domingo’s annual dog-and-pony show; the problem is finding a company philosophy that embraces opera not as merely cultivated entertainment but as something important and transformative in our lives. CP