Elle est ici, la tourterelle: Hoffmann at the COC

Elle est ici, la tourterelle: Hoffmann at the COC

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.

14 thoughts on “Elle est ici, la tourterelle: Hoffmann at the COC

      1. It’s a in-joke, Mr. Gardonyi. My fellow opera blogger and I saw Ambur Braid last time in Orfeo, where she sung Amore, half of it en travesti. We both love en travesti roles for female singers. If you read a few posts on this blog, you’ll figure this out quickly enough. This is blogging 101 – you get to be very personal and idiosyncratic and *that* is precisely the reason people will read you (not because you satisfy some formal requirements of journalistic reporting). Do stick around, and maybe even start your own blog? I have noticed your reviews in the Wholenote, but if one wants to write more than once a month, one will need to start a blog, is how things are developing with print media these days.

  1. Sorry, but I have no idea who is writing this review, there is no info on the author, but I assume it’s a woman since she uses words like ‘barihunk’, a very up to date chick word.
    I congratulate her on her French and her witty style by which she is trying to score points
    that have little to do with the opera, let alone music. My overall impression of this production was no less than glorious as far as the singing and conducting is concerned, to me the most important aspect of opera. The ‘author’ doesn’t even mention how good Johannes Debus is
    in his firm control of the score, perfect upbeat tempi and making Offenbach’s marvellous score
    really shine. She does ‘run thru’ the singers from a technical point of view and never fails to emphasize any negative aspects, true or not. She is doing a good job to scare away all potential opera patrons.
    She spends most of her review knocking the director, the sets and the Konzept (sic). Apparently this production comes from Belgium, the Vlaamse Co. noted for inventive, unusual and ‘relevant’ productions. I’ve just recently seen by them ‘Samson and Delilah’ updated to emulate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an exciting, powerful, strong’ Konzept’ that kept me at the edge of my seat.Musically it was first class as well, by not really well known singers.
    I thought this Hoffmann had a concept although not a political one, more like traditional, but sufficiently different from old times. I was 12 when I first saw Hoffmann, in a truly traditional production in Hungary albeit it was very beautiful, complete with stunning Venetian scenery in
    magical light, the Antonia act complete with demonic green light on Dr Miracle who even picks up a violin at the climax of the scene. All that made a powerful impression on me as young child and Hoffmann remained one of my favorite operas ever since. Now, at age 75 and a regular subcriber to COC, I still love this opera even more. This production did away with all sensational, crowd pleasing aspects. Emphasized the drabness, the squalor, the decadence especially in the Venetian scene. I also liked the oversized furniture (she makes no mention of this), it’s a take-off on Alice in Wonderland and creating apart from a fairy tale quality a sense of unease, of putting us off balance in respect of scale. Same goes for the oversize doorways.
    I could go on, but if I wrote a REVIEW on a website I would ‘accentuate the positive’ as the old song goes,
    Congratulations to Mr Neef and the Canadian Opera for a enchanted evening and a standing ovation. Janos Gardonyi, ret. architect, photographer
    staff reviewer of the Wholenote magazine, Toronto

  2. If you go click where it says MASTHEAD above, you will easily discover my name and what I do and where else I write. What can I say — thanks for taking the time to review my review. I’ll also just add that is “barihunk” is originally a gay men neologism, and that I am not a chick.

    1. of course not, mia cara. Maybe a hen but hopefully not a big fat one that lays eggs.But one never knows what goes on in the print media these days.
      Thanks for noticing my reviews, perhaps you’ve read them too. It would help you to learn how to review an opera. Hahaha, I am only kidding, I just couldn’t help myself.
      I am sure you are an expert if you’ve interviewed Maestro Carigliano whom I revere.
      Best to you in both official languages. Ciao. Janos

      1. I find it problematic when people compare women to animals of any kind. Chick, hen, whatever. It’s hateful. I could reciprocate by calling you a donkey, and then correct myself by suggesting that you are probably rather an ass (not a fat one, just a particularly dim one), but where would that take us? So – I end this conversation right here.

  3. Now that was a fun exchange! Who knew that opera reviews could get so exciting? :)

    DtO replies:

    Welcome, Erika. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an exchange at all — it turned into ad hominem and name-calling immediately, and I have zero tolerance policy to sexism here. Have a look at some other posts on this blog and visit the blogs on my blog roll (under Read On) for some really good discussions about opera.

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