Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, which has never lacked boldness, opened its second summer season Saturday night with with a radical new version of "The Tales of Hoffmann," the tuneful opera by Jacques Offenbach which Pittsburgh Opera last presented a quarter century ago.
Opera Theater's Summerfest takes place this year at The Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.
Offenbach died before completing the score of "The Tales of Hoffmann," the libretto of which is based on stories by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, whose pen name was E.T.A. Hoffmann. He's best known for his fictional prose, although he wrote an insightful essay on Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony shortly after its premiere. Hoffmann was also a composer.
Company artistic director Jonathan Eaton and music director Robert Frankenberry dispensed entirely with Offenbach's Prologue in favor of a scene built around a piano rehearsal for the Act I finale of Hoffmann's opera "Undine," sung in German but with dialogue in English. The French words set by Offenbach later in the opera were sung in English translation.
Like Offenbach's Prologue, Eaton's version establishes Count Lindorf, wearing devilish red gloves, as Hoffmann's nemesis. Unlike the original, which has Hoffmann the "star" of the Prologue, Eaton's version makes Hoffmann's current love interest, the opera singer Stella, the center of attention.
It was certainly interesting to hear Hoffmann's music from "Undine," an example of early German romanticism with hints of Beethoven here and there. But in addition to being in a different style from Offenbach's music, it is also much less appealing. There is nothing in it to compare with Offenbach's charimastic song for Hoffmann "Va pour Kleinzach!"
Each of the opera's three acts is devoted to one of Hoffmann's former lovers. Each of the women represents an aspect of what he seeks in love - all of which and more are embodied in Stella.
The performance took place in the Art Deco Theater on the club's second floor. It is a moderately small theater with a good stage. The singers with bigger voices, such as tenor Robert Chafin who sang Hoffmann, seemed still to be adjusting to the acoustics of the room on Saturday night.
The first act is about Olympia, actually a robot invented by Spalanzani, who was well portrayed by Christopher Lucier. Julia Engel certainly reached into the stratosphere singing Olympia's coloratura lines, yet performed with more panache than precision. The mechanism that animated her in this production oddly involved tubing rather than the traditional wind-up spring.
The frail Antonia of the second act wore a bandage around her head and used canes. Lara Lynn Cottrill brought appealing lyrical sensibility to the role but sang too softly at times.
Toni Esker had plenty of intensity portraying Giulietta in the third act, in which she seduces Hoffmann, but was uneven in projecting the musical line right from the start of the act where the famous barcarole failed to charm. A few staging gestures tried to make use of her pregnancy.
In place of Offenbach's Epilogue Eaton brought back the "Undine" rehearsal, again featuring the excellent Sarah van der Ploeg as Stella, before concluding with energetic Offenbach - complete with can-can dancing by four chorus members.
The two main secondary roles were very well performed. Baritone Dimitri Lazich had wonderful resonance, a good top and charm as Lindorf - as well as the other names under which Hoffmann's nemesis appears. Mezzo Evgenia Chaverdova offered a superbly defined portrayal of Nicklausse, Hoffmann's friend.
Eaton's staging served to emphasize that Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta are all under the control of the men in their lives. Stella, whose independence Eaton establishes well at the start of the opera, will be a different experience for Hoffmann.
Brent McMunn conducted sympathetically, but with more energy before intermission than in the last act. The 25-piece orchestra needed more rehearsal. It included many fine musicians, including solo clarinet and horn, but the intonation of the violins was too often not together. The chorus, which entered from the back of the hall singing as its members went up the three aisles to the stage, was excellent.
'The Tales of Hofmann Retold' will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. July 13 and 2:30 p.m. July 21 at The Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland. Admission is $20 to $75. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org.
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or email@example.com.
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