Opera Review: A Potent Fantasy in ‘Tales of Hoffmann’

  • Amal El-Shrafi, as Antonia, left, and Todd Wilander as Hoffmann appear in a scene from Opera North's production of "Tales of Hoffmann." (Lars Blackmore photograph)

  • From left, Aleksey Bogdanov, as Coppelius, Todd Wilander, as Hoffmann, and Ashley Puenner, as Nicklausse, appear in a scene from Opera North's production of "Tales of Hoffmann" at Lebanon Opera House. (Lars Blackmore photograph)

For the Valley News
Monday, August 06, 2018

Opera North has been busy this summer, injecting new vibrancy into a genre that younger generations often see as stuffy. While opera companies have been laboring to retain and build their audiences around the country, the Lebanon-based company’s reinvigoration efforts have the potential to reverse that trend in the Upper Valley.

This summer has already borne witness to Singers and Swingers, a groundbreaking collaboration with the National Park Service at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, which blended opera and circus performance. And this October, as Evans Haile announced to an audience on Friday, the company will perform the young composer and lyricist Derrick Wang’s new opera Scalia/Ginsburg, which takes as its subject the frenemy Supreme Court justices who shared a love of the art form; the work has only been produced twice so far.

With its two August offerings at Lebanon Opera House, however, Opera North walks a tightrope instead of pushing the envelope. Tales of Hoffmann and Barber of Seville are both classic operas — Romantic masterpieces, no less — that stay true to the genre’s venerable roots. But they are also some of the canon’s most fun offerings, likely to appeal to both aficionados and newer audience members.

Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann is an example of French opéra fantastique, which is a campy blend of science fiction, horror and fantasy. Director Russell Treyz fully embraces the fantastical aesthetic, creating a production that does justice to Offenbach’s inventive score and the stories of the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, on which the libretto is based.

The opera takes the form of three of Hoffmann’s Gothic tales, published between 1814 and 1818. The opera, first performed in 1881, in Paris, also fictionalizes the author himself, with each of the stories depicting a great love of his life.

The tales are set between a prologue and an epilogue that frame the piece as the drunken writer telling these stories to a group of young friends at a tavern. The initial real-world setting is Nuremberg, where Hoffmann is smitten with a popular prima donna. From there we quickly veer into the more imaginative locales of the love stories, but not before Hoffmann revels in a drinking song with his buddies (“Glug, glug, glug,” they sing exuberantly, with an onomatopoeia that needs no translation). This energetic start includes a story about Kleinzach, a deformed dwarf portrayed mock-begrudgingly by dancer Alec Cohen with amusing balletic verve.

In the midst of the story, however, Hoffmann’s mind wanders as memories of lost love wash over him and he begins to spin the story of Olympia, a lifelike mechanical doll that everyone but he can see is an automaton. This first tale, the longest of the bunch, steals the show. And for good reason: the prologue and first act are the only ones completed by Offenbach. Ill while working on the orchestration, the composer’s dying wish of completing his first full-length grand opera was not fulfilled. The remainder was cobbled together by many hands and editors, so it is not surprising that the first half of the work is where Offenbach’s genius shines.

Soprano Emily Misch, a member of Opera North’s company of resident artists, is transfixing from the moment she appears as Olympia, her rigid feet jerked into an unnatural posture while the rest of her body hides behind a curtain. Gold-skinned and pink-haired, with a giant bow at her back that frequently needs winding to recharge her, her mechanical movements are as entertaining as her intonation. With a humorously robotic lilt, she hits and holds her high notes with pre-programmed ease.

After Olympia is torn apart by her co-creator in a vengeful rage, we move to the story of Antonia, a young woman suffering from a mysterious disease who has been forbidden to sing, lest it cause her death. This story is set inside a room in a rather plain if wealthy house.

While the locations of the story are varied, the true environment of the opera is the imagination. The sets, designed by Audrey Vuong, plunge us into this magical realm. They range from simple and evocative, with a smooth marriage of lights and scenery, to elaborate: the third story nominally takes place in Venice, but appears as an Arabian pleasure den, the stage draped in rich red curtains and adorned with pillows, a crystal chandelier and scantily clad pleasure seekers in billowy pants.

Costume designer Jack Maisenbach’s sumptuous and immaculately detailed costumes provide a feast for the eyes that smashes together various time periods and juxtaposes reality and fantasy in ways that only the imagination can. Men in skimmers cavort with those in top hats, while inventors wear long coats adorned with colorful gears. Some of the best costumes, such as a brocade and fur-trimmed coat, are worn by Aleksey Bogdanov, who plays the opera’s four different villains. His resounding baritone and classic evil laugh make him a magnetic force on stage, drawing all eyes and ears as he punctuates his evil schemes with humor.

The orchestra performs admirably under the familiar watch of longtime Artistic Director Louis Burkot, and tenor Todd Wilander makes for an affable title character. Though the opera has some flaws, at times feeling more like an assemblage of parts than a cohesive whole, the production embraces the quirks and the joy in this atypical romp.

It’s the kind of opera that is best appreciated through the eyes and mind as well as through the ears. Rather than simply allowing the music to wash over you, make sure to keep up with the intricacies of the storyline to truly get the most out of the twisted tales. Just be forewarned: the supertitles are small, so make sure to sit close enough, or to bring your glasses.

Opera North’s production ofTales of Hoffmanncontinues at Lebanon Opera House with performances on Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. For tickets ($20 to $90) or more information, visit operanorth.org or call the box office at 603-448-0400.

Samantha Lazar is a dramaturg, performance critic and theater producer. She lives in Lebanon.