Wednesday, April 11, 2012
OPERA REVIEW: TALES OF HOFFMANN
JOHN COULBOURN - Special to TorSun
11 APR 2012
Pictured: Andriana Chuchman, Steven Cole
TORONTO - In spinning out THE TALES OF HOFFMANN, composer Jacques Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier apparently decided to leave tales told by idiots to Shakespeare and his ilk and dwell instead in a world where tales are told by drunkards and layabouts.
And while their operatic adaptation of the stageplay written by Barbier and Michel Carré (based, not surprisingly, on tales originally told by E.T.A. Hoffmann) is filled with all sorts of glorious sound and a certain frenetic fury, in the end, it still seems to signify nothing, as its five acts well-told fail to add up to a single well-told story.
It begins with Hoffmann, sung here by tenor Russell Thomas in a performance that sadly doesn’t equal his magnificent voice, in the midst of a battle royal with his current mistress, the lovely diva, Stella, sung by soprano Ambur Braid. She storms out in a huff, and fuelled by several bottles of his favourite libation and encouraged by his lovely Muse (mezzo Lauren Segal) masquerading as his good friend Nicklausse, Hoffmann is soon lost in a sea of reminiscences of loves won and tragically lost.
Starting with the mechanical Olympia and progressing through the tragic Antonia and the wanton Giulietta (sung respectively and gloriously by sopranos Andriana Chuchman, Erin Wall and Keri Alkema), Hoffmann recounts a series of romantic disasters, each tragedy seemingly engineered by his shape-shifting nemesis, magnificently sung by bass-baritone John Relyea, who takes a different form in each story and manages repeatedly to separate the drunken poet from the current object of his affections.
In a production first performed by the Vlaamse Opera, director Lee Blakeley opts for a more or less straightforward retelling of the tale, ignoring for the most part the implications of Hoffmann’s insistence that all four women are really one woman in different guises, and the more subtle Freudian suggestions that Relyea’s villain is really a part of the poet’s subconscious.
Instead, with the connivance of designers Roni Toren (sets), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes) and Jenny Cane (lights), he layers his story with a tragicomic evocation of Victorian penny-dreadfuls and lets the chips fall where they may, making the most of tenor Steven Cole’s comedic range in a variety of servant’s roles and overlaying every-thing with through-the-looking-glass sensibility that transforms sleigh-beds into gondolas, hand puppets into inner voices and memories into midgets.
Musically, it is a glorious affair, with a largely impressive cast, backed by the COC Orchestra under the assured baton of Johannes Debus, and by the COC Chorus turning in its usual impressive work, the collective enthusiasm in no way dulled nor diminished by the length or the complex demands that TALES places upon them. Dramatically, however, it never really comes together — and one suspects it rarely has, considering that the composer died before completing the work, leaving it to his friends and admirers to assemble the bits and pieces of what he was working on and cobble it into some semblance of a complete work.
To the level that their handiwork has survived more than 130 years, it can be assumed that they succeeded to some degree, but to the level that it all adds up to nearly three and a half hours of glorious sound and fury signifying next to nothing is a measure of their shortcomings. It’s five acts of magnificent operatic entertainment that, in the end, fail to add up to a single memorable opera.