Elle est ici, la tourterelle: Hoffmann at the COC

Posted on April 16, 2012

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The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach at Canadian Opera Company. Libretto by Jules Barbier, adapted from the play by Barbier and Michel Carré, based on several tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Conductor Johannes Debus. Director Lee Blakeley. Performance dates, tickets, MORE

Let’s begin with the stellar things about the new (rented) production of The Tales of Hoffmann that just opened at the COC and that originally premiered at Vlaamse Opera.

Eril Wall is an excellent Antonia. Her acting was tone-perfect and her voice a sparkling, luxurious stream of soprano lyricism. She gave the character the ingénue naïveté, romanticism, a dash of silliness and submission, all of which took a turn for tragic in the denouement. Antonia’s segment is the only part of The Tales where music and action join in to build an earnestly dramatic culmination to a scene. Wall made all the right decisions along the way, and even when she is trilling her last sung lines as she is dying prostrated on the floor, she is moving. Few singers can trill on their death bed and not cause mirth.

Fortunately, Andriana Chuchman as Olympia was all about mirth. In the first run-through of “Les oiseaux”, she was a sedentary doll attached to a small harp, but things started to get lively in the repeat. There was a good consistency to the mechanics of her moves, whether they were sparse or frantic. The coloratura pyrotechnics, however, needed no recharging.

Russell Thomas was a vocally superb Hoffmann, with a beautiful timbre and warmth that remained consistent over the three hours of the performance. It wasn’t the best acted Hoffmann of all time, but he did try to diversify the poet’s emotional gamut. There is a fine actor in there somewhere waiting to emerge, and I suspect he much depends on what kind of a stage director he is wedded to.

Which brings me to the less fortunate aspects of the production. Director Lee Blakeley’s is a traditional production but for a few non-traditional twists that actually don’t add to the meaning of the work. He presents a sort of a half-hearted attempt at re-imagining the work, but in effect just re-inscribes it, with the addition of a few confusing cosmetic changes.

All three acts take place in some version of the same room, possibly Hoffmann’s garret, possibly the average composite of all the Victorian rooms that loom large in Hoffmann’s memory. There’s no sign of a tavern in Act 1: Hoffmann is in his room, rudely being interrupted by the invisible chorus of revelers and the characters who are ghost visitors of his preoccupied mind. There are no instruments, no piano and no sign that Antonia’s is a musical family in Act 3; we’re in the enlarged version of the room from before. The walls have further frayed, pictures further tilted, and crowds gotten further ghostly and ghastly in Act 4, where an unmade bed is being paddled around in place of a gondola. In the Epilogue, Hoffmann is back in his small room. Inexplicably, Blakely has given him a kind of a happy ending by having Stella (Ambur Braid) come to him and in a shoulder-rub hover join in singing of “On est grand par l’amour”. Thus the opera about an anti-hero and his fantasies almost becomes the opera about reconciliation.

But there’s more. The Giulietta act is completely devoid of sexual frisson — apart from its music, witch which is luscious. Barcarolle is awkwardly acted, alas, with Nicklausse (Lauren Segal) and Giulietta (Keri Alkema) visibly discomfited at finding each other in the same bed for a moment. The whole business around Hoffmann losing his shadow is phoned in.

John Relyea as is a good singer — not to mention a barihunk — but his four characters always park centre-stage and sing mock-dramatically. I suspect it is again the stage director that turned him into a one-note villain.

It is good news that The Tales is finally being performed at the COC after so many years. Too bad the work didn’t arrive with an interesting directorial Konzept.

Top: Erin Wall as Antonia in the Canadian Opera Company production of The Tales of Hoffmann, 2012 — photo by Chris Hutcheson. Bottom: Russell Thomas as Hoffmann with Lauren Segal as Nicklausse — photo by Michael Cooper.

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