Sunday, May 11, 2014

Seattle Opera caps Jenkins’ era with marvelous “The Tales of Hoffmann”

Hoffmann (William Burden), encouraged by Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey), has a manuscript to show for all his romantic misadventures in The Tales of Hoffmann, 2014 © Elise Bakketun

Seattle Opera closed the Speight Jenkins era with a superb performance of Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” (“Les contes d’Hoffmann”), reprising an imaginative production that the company co-produced to much acclaim in 2005. The opening night performance on Saturday, May 3rd, featured top tier singing, acting, orchestral playing, and evocative scenery that tied together the fanciful stories of Hoffmann and his failed romances. The high quality proved a delightful capper for Jenkins’ 31-year run as general director, and the audience left McCaw Auditorium very satisfied with no hangover.

“The Tales of Hoffmann” is Offenbach’s first and last grand opera, but he left if unfinished when he died in 1880. The story is told as a series of flashbacks that are framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The poet Hoffmann, falls victim to alcohol after surviving three unhappy love affairs with the mechanical doll Olympia, the consumptive singer Antonia, and the Venetian courtesan Giulietta. In each case, he is thwarted by his own self-delusion and thwarted four villains.

William Burden sang the title role with a warm and welcoming tone that helped to make his character a bit sympathetic. Viewers can shake their collective heads at a fellow who falls in love with an automaton, but with the advent of Google glasses and virtual reality, it’s a problem that is still with us.

Norah Amsellem expertly transitioned from Olympia to Antonia to Giulietta, and finally Stella (who embodies all three). Her herky jerky movement as Olympia was hilarious, causing outbreaks of laughter from all corners of the hall, but a brighter voice in that role may have worked better. Nicolas Cavallier excelled as the personification of evil in the roles Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto, declaiming his malevolent-ness with pleasure. Keith Jameson put an R2D2 spin on Cochenille, but he was equally effective as Andrès, Frantz, and Ptichinaccio. Steven Cole created a wildly excitable Spalanzani.

The real glue to the production was Kate Lindsey’s comely Muse and tomboyish Nicklausse. Her tone was golden and gorgeous and she convincingly use a variety of gestures and expressions to make her character a central part of story.

This production, under the direction of Chris Alexander, featured several fanciful embellishments like the bottle ballet that teased Hoffmann as well as the audience during the Prologue, the funny pantomiming of “Kleinzach,” and the flashes of fire and smoke that Counselor Lindorf tossed about and which accented his Mephistophelean qualities.

Conductor Yves Abel and the opera orchestra were on top of their game from the opening bars. The sound could shift from bubbly to sullen on a moment’s notice, and the singers could always be clearly heard.

The evocative scenery, designed by Robert Dahlstrom, and costumes, designed by Marie-Therese Cramer, were built by Seattle Opera for the original production in 2005. A long bar, extending across the entire front of the stage dominated the opening and closing scenes, while an interior view of an opulent opera house effectively worked with scenes dealing with Antonia, and a grand Venetian backdrop and moving gondola added a touch of magic to the beloved barcarole, “Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour.” The costumes were contemporary for the most part, but some (for example, Olympia’s hoop skirt) suggested the Nineteenth Century.

After the singers came out to take their bows, Speight Jenkins was brought to the stage to thunderous applause. In his brief remarks, he mentioned that Seattle Opera presented 92 operas under his tenure and 1220 performances. He also related a humorous anecdote about how his first Rheingold suffered from a Wotan who lost his voice early on in the performance and had to speak all of the lines. Jenkins survived that pending fiasco with a quick phone call to a singer who could fly in the next day. Excellent decision-making has been a hallmark of Jenkins’ leadership, and it is no wonder than Seattle Opera has continued to grow in stature. Who would have thought that a fellow music critic and journalist (Jenkins worked for Opera News and the New York Post) would have turned out to be such a gifted director of an opera company. It sounds as magical as “The Tales of Hoffmann,” and it probably is.

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