The first act of the COC’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann is worth the price of admission. English director Lee Blakeley has done such a brilliant job with Olympia (Andriana Chuchman), that we can forgive the messy Guilietta (Keri Alkema) act, and puzzling Prologue and Epilogue. His Antonia (Erin Wall) act falls somewhere in between moving and bland.
Jacques Offenbach was primarily known as a composer of fun-filled operettas that spoofed the mid-19th century France of his day. His dream, however, was to write a grand opera. The tragedy is, Offenbach never lived to see his dream complete. He died four months before the 1881 premiere of The Tales of Hoffmann, and as a result, there are many versions of the opera. Happily, COC music director/conductor Johannes Debus includes all the great music while beefing up the part of The Muse/Nicklausse (Lauren Segal) with extra arias. Incidentally, Segal is absolutely sensational with a rich, fruity mezzo-soprano voice that will take her far. She has it all – she can both sing and act.
At times Debus cranks up the music to the point of overpowering the singers – like the Antonia act trio, and the Epilogue quartet, but he certainly embraces the grandeur of this grand opera, and he and the orchestra were bestowed cheers of appreciation by the audience.
This particular production was created for Antwerp’s Vlaamse Opera. Set designer Roni Toren has made everything out of scale. The Prologue/Epilogue take place in Hoffmann’s (Russell Thomas) tiny hovel, appropriately put on a tilt. Both the Muse and Lindorf (John Relyea) initially appear through the furniture, and are standing on the roof at the end, presumably to emphasize the surreal nature of the plot.
In the acts about Hoffmann’s loves, everything is either over-large, like Antonia’s giant door, table, chair etc., or over-crowded, such as the scientific detritus of the Olympia act, or the dominating bed and physical erotic imagery of the Guilietta act. Despite the largesse and/or pinched quality of the décor, everything seems crunched together in terms of the chorus. There doesn’t seem to be enough room. In the Guilietta act in particular, you can scarcely make out who’s singing amidst the crush of people.
Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes capture the Napoleonic era – perhaps to establish a tone of excess associated with that age. The diva Stella (Ambur Braid), Hoffmann’s love of loves, wanders forlornly through all the acts as a reminder that she is the ideal, embodying the other three loves in one. She also appears as odd-man-out in the Prologue and Epilogue. In the former, Hoffmann treats her roughly and she storms out. In the latter, she comes back the loving mistress having deserted Lindorf, one assumes. Mixed messages if ever there were.
In the final analysis, it is the singers who can make or break a Hoffmann production, and the combination of Canadian and American cast members proves to be first rate. American tenor Thomas was born to sing the French repertoire with his sweet lyric voice and effortless top. Blakeley has him mostly on his stomach writing with his quill pen, suitable for a poet, but a limited response for an operatic tenor. As a result, key moments don’t have the drama that they should, with the writing metaphor and Nicklausse’s task to win Hoffmann away from his loves for art’s sake, taken to the extreme. In the Antonia act, Hoffmann is practically invisible. In fact, Jenny Cane’s lighting is, unfortunately, over-dim throughout.
Chuchman’s performance is remarkable. She is truly an exaggerated automaton, run by electric currents. How she can still sing Olympia’s difficult coloratura aria and move her body in unbelievable robotic fashion, remains a mystery. Her Olympia also has raging hormones and it is absolutely laugh out loud when she tries to get a sexual charge out of the electric prods. Her very top may be a bit harsh (understandably so given her physical workout), but the rest of her runs and trills are marvellous. She accepts Blakeley’s challenge of movement to the extreme, and makes it her own.
Wall’s Antonia shows off her limpid, lyric soprano well, but she never really gets a chance to display her acting chops, confined as she is in the one huge chair, with the focus on Dr. Miracle, her mother (soprano Ileana Montalbetti), and father (baritone Gregory Dahl, who also does a decent job with that other hapless character, Schlémil). On the subject of the villains, bass-baritone Relyea, he of the glittering international career, has finally come home in triumph. He plays all four (Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto), and from his very first robust and mellifluous note, the audience knows they are in the presence of a commanding voice that fills the hall. He is a consummate talent and one of the most gifted young singers of his generation.
American Alkema’s richly dramatic soprano is clear and exciting, but she has been given some unattractive directing, such as rolling on the floor with Hoffmann, which reveals her beige, skin-tight panties, not the most pleasant sight. The act is so jam-packed with chorus and supernumeraries, that any movement looks contrived, even forced. As aforementioned, it is virtually impossible to see the singers, particularly their exits, an important one being the invisible departure of Guilietta and Pitichinaccio.
Character tenor Stephen Cole, playing all the sub-villains (Andrés/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio) distinguishes himself both in bright sound and acting ability. The large cast fields other fine performances by American bass Valerian Ruminski (Luther), and tenor Michael Barrett (Spalanzani). The student duo (Nathanaël/Hermann) of Christopher Enns and Philippe Sly, display not only lusty singing, but agile gymnastic skills.
Is this a run don’t walk production? Definitely for the singing and the orchestra. The set, lighting, and some of the direction leave something to be desired.
Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, Canadian Opera Company, (featuring Russell Thomas, Lauren Segal, John Relyea, Andriana Chuchman, Erin Wall, Keri Alkema, Steven Cole, and Gregory Dahl, conducted by Johannes Debus, directed by Lee Blakeley). Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 10 to May 14, 2012