Vienna, VA, August 7, 2011 – Packing both the small stage and tiny orchestra pit with singers and players, the Wolf Trap Opera opened its short run of Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” (The Tales of Hoffmann) in the Barns this Friday past. A significant stretch for this ambitious summer company, this lengthy, three and one-half hour production is loaded with wonderful moments but marred from time to time by lumpy direction and a clunky though passably imaginative set design.
Tales of Hoffmann is Offenbach’s imaginative musical take on the life and times of famous, real-life storyteller E.T.A. Hoffmann. His fanciful tales are still widely admired in Europe although perhaps less well known in today’s contemporary America. In the opera, three of Hoffmann’s stories are adapted into each of three acts depicting his various loves, real and imagined.
Hoffmann was a notorious drinker, and the opera proper is framed by a prologue and an epilogue set in tavern where the drunken Hoffmann eventually conjures up the three bizarre tales in which he plays a starring role.
Each of his affairs ends badly, the first in which he is duped by the mechanical doll, Olympia; the second in which his beloved Antonia dies tragically; and the third in which he is tricked by the courtesan Giulietta into giving up his mirror image—his spirit. Throughout the opera, he’s dogged by the Devil himself in the guise of what this opera’s fans call the “Four Villains”—different manifestations of the evil spirit in each act.
As fans of Hoffmann known, this surrealistically romantic opera traveled a messy path to its current popularity. It was Offenbach’s major work, his big pitch to be considered a serious composer. He was already a rich one, the musical Neil Simon of his day, having composed a string of wildly popular, tune-filled, satirical operettas that kept Parisian toes tapping and box office turnstiles spinning. Even today, the hardiest heavy-metal fan can probably hum Offenbach’s famous “Can-Can” dance from Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) without missing a beat and without knowing where it came from.
But when it came to the opera that Offenbach hoped would be his crowning glory, the Fates intervened. The composer died before completing it, having finished the piano score and having orchestrated the Prologue and first act. Ernest Guiraud, a close associate of the composer completed the orchestration, but then the fiddling began.
The opera’s third act was cut for its 1881 Paris premiere. Songs were shuffled in subsequent performance and two new ones were added, derived from earlier Offenbach compositions. Even the third act’s famous “Barcarolle” was an interpolation. It, too, was borrowed from a much-earlier, mostly forgotten Offenbach operetta, added in by Guiraud—an unconsciously brilliant stroke of genius.
As time went on, acts were moved around, the opera’s spoken dialogue was turned into recitative and back again, and the opera was prodded and poked into what was needed at the time. To this day, someone always complains about the order of the acts or song selections and cuts in any given performance. But then again, that’s the fun of opera. Everyone has a strong opinion, and opera audiences are amazingly well informed.
Wolf Trap chose to use a fairly recent scholarly reconstruction of Hoffmann in this production, wisely using the spoken dialogue to speed this lengthy production (which includes two intermissions) along. The upside is a production that likely contains everyone’s favorite numbers. The downside is that you’re not out in the parking lot until 11:30 pm.
Friday’s opening night performance featured a number of delightful, polished performances by Wolf Trap’s young performers. At the top of the list was bass-baritone Craig Irvin who performed the difficult role of the “Four Villains” with remarkable skill and subtle shading. His sound was rich and clear, and his French pronunciation and diction was quite skilled.
Soprano Marcy Stonikas was outstanding as the tragic Antonia. She has a huge, clear, commanding voice that is nonetheless capable of great subtlety, and her Act II performance sent a palpable ripple of excitement throughout the performance space.
Jamie-Rose Guarrine was a funny, delightful Olympia. Her robotic movements were not quite as pronounced as we are used to seeing, but her lilting, coloratura soprano was more than equal to the ridiculous demands of this part, which Offenbach clearly composed as a charming, witty satire on the excesses of this kind of singing. Her stratospheric high notes, while slightly forced, were miraculously on key as well.
In the somewhat smaller role of Giulietta, the scheming courtesan, Eve Gigliotti was near perfect with her burnished soprano seeming the very embodiment of Hoffmann’s scheming character. However, as an actress, she seemed somewhat indifferent to her character whose casual criminality needs to be a better match with her fellow schemers.
Mezzo Catherine Martin—a bit of a Jennifer Anniston lookalike—was excellent in the trouser role of Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s best buddy who’s ultimately revealed to be someone else. Ms. Martin’s voice blooms with great warmth and passion. Her French was quite good, her acting low key but professional. An earlier Wolf Trap alumna, the astonishing Kate Lindsay, sang this part at the Met last season to great acclaim. Perhaps Ms. Martin will go on to reprise this impressive feat.
As the opera’s anti-hero, tenor Nathaniel Peake tackled his part with great vigor, but did not fully embody it in Friday’s performance. The music is tough, the delivery sometimes tougher. Mr. Peake gave it a go and was at times impressive, his radiant, well-supported tenor voice found release in all its glory. But his intonation was often imprecise, and his pronunciation and diction could still use some work. Clearly, he’s fully capable of tackling this role, but he needs to ease into it rather than forcing the outcome.
Throughout the evening, Israel Gursky and the small but stuffed-to-the-gills pit orchestra did a fine job accompanying the cast without drowning them out.
Not so successful, however, were the sets of Micheal Olich or the direction of Dan Rigazzi. Mr. Olich was clearly attempting to economize by creating a versatile, inexpensive set that could somehow replicate this opera’s normally lavish and ever changing scenery.
To do so, he lined up a series of structures that initially resembled beat up railroad cattle cars. These rolled to and fro and were spun around in various combinations to create the tavern, the doll maker’s shop, the drawing room, and the Venetian canal wharf that serve as the various stages for the drunken Hoffmann’s fantastic stories. But the sets and the lighting were dark and gloomy throughout the evening—quite a downer for this colorful opera. And the weird, seashell-like atmosphere generated in Act III just never seemed to make sense.
Worst of all, the entire opera set is framed in the front by faux old wood beams that remarkably resemble the supporting structure of the Barns facility itself. That’s a nice touch, except that it serves to block the view of audience members seated to the left during a number of key scenes, something that director Dan Piazzi never seems to have realized.
For his part, Mr. Piazzi’s blocking and direction seem somehow lifeless, robbing this wild and crazy opera of nearly all its fanciful vigor. Part of this is due that, given the sheer amount of space taken up by the boxcars, he simply doesn’t have much room to work with his cast. But even so, characters just seem to hang around listlessly. Heck, this is an opera that opens and closes with party scenes. Let’s liven things up a bit this week.
All this said, if you like great, tuneful operas, confused heroes, diverse heroines, and a Snidely Whiplash-evil villain who morphs into different characters, the Wolf Trap Opera’s current Tales of Hoffmann will still delight with both the quality of the music and the vigor the ensemble’s young singers put into it.
Rating: ** (Two stars.)
The final two performances of the Wolf Trap Opera’s Tales of Hoffmann will be staged at the Barns on Thursday, August 11 at 8 pm and Saturday, August 13, at 7 pm. For tickets and information visit the Wolf Trap Opera website via this link.
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