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Make every effort to get a ticket to one of the two remaining performances of Les contes D'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach at the Stevens Center. Word-of-mouth must have been good since the house seemed to be filled to capacity on opening night. It is a terrific production featuring superbly prepared singers who are post-graduate fellows of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute along with additional talent from a whole array of departments from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. The plot sandwiches three separate "tales" within the opera and involves some remarkably speedy changes of costumes and sets. Outside the major roles, many singers get to portray as many as four different characters! The opera is sung in French with fine English supertitles. You could take dictation from the uniform clarity of the cast's enunciation.
Offenbach did not live to complete this opera, and that has given rise to a number of completed editions which I will not attempt to flesh out. Stage Director Steven LaCrosse's choices in the Luther's Tavern scene which serves as prologue and epilogue to the opera differed somewhat from the four different live productions I have seen.
The opera's Prologue opens in Luther's Tavern which is near the opera house where the diva Stella is appearing in Mozart's Don Giovanni. She is the most recent interest of the love-susceptible poet Hoffmann. His immortal Muse has taken the form of his faithful companion Nicklausse. Hoffmann's rival is the devilish Councilor Lindorf, who undertakes to sabotage the poet's affair with Stella. Supporting roles are tavern keeper Luther and students Hermann and Nathanael. After rousing drinking songs by the chorus and an athletic delivery of "The Legend of Kleinzach" by Hoffmann, the poet is goaded by Lindorf to recount three tragic, great loves of his life.
Act I, "Olympia," takes place in the mansion of physics professor Spalanzani who has created a mechanical woman, Olympia, with the aid of his rival Coppelius and some magic eye-glasses. The "robot's" role is ideal for a soprano with powerful, pure range into the stratosphere. and it helps for her to have trills. Her clock-work movements give endless scope for sight gags and comedy. The besotted Hoffmann proposes to Olympia, but she is dismantled when Coppelius finds that Spalanzani's check has bounced!
Act II, "Antonia," is tragic. Hoffmann has fallen for the singer Antonia, who has inherited her mother's fatal illness. Crespel, her Father, has forbidden her to sing and has tried to keep her away from the Poet. The devilish Dr. Miracle imposes his way into the house and repeats his fatal role in the death of both mother and daughter.
Act III, "Giulietta," takes place in Venice, where the cruel courtesan seduces men, stealing their reflections to put them in the power of her master, Dapertutto. Offenbach's famous barcarole, "Belle Nuit, ô nuit d'amour," and its melody haunt this act's music. Giulietta gets Hoffmann to duel with her previous victim, Schlémil, fatally stabbing him. Her slavish admirer, the crippled Pittichinaco is prominent in the background.
The opera quickly reverts to Luther's tavern for the opera's Epilog. Stella arrives to find Hoffmann in a drunken stupor, during which he rants that she is like his three "loves" in one, and he rejects her. She leaves on Lindorf's arm, and the poet's Muse takes on her immortal form to steer him to aspire to Art.
The pit orchestra consisted of members of the UNC School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra. They played at a professional level with excellent ensemble and fine solos such as the extended violin solo for the villain in Act II and many fine woodwind solos. Music Director James Albritten maintained close co-ordination between the pit and major solo singers and the huge cast of chorus and extras on stage. Stage Director Steve La Crosse's conception is one of the most effective I have seen. His choices from among the many new musical alternatives, from the plethora of 50 years of scholarly editions, were fascinating. His blocking of all the soloists and huge cast was miraculous. This is the school's first excursion into French grand opera, which always includes ballet, five acts, and spectacle. It is a tremendous achievement.
The detailed and elaborate backdrops, designed and painted by David Valentini, were a constant delight. He is a most promising senior college student in production and design. They depict the tavern in Nuremberg, 1820, Spalanzani's house in Paris, 1776, Antonia's House in Munich, 1785, and a house by a canal in Venice, 1815.
The effective and elaborate lighting was designed by Wesley Forlane. The wigs – more than one hundred in Act I alone – were designed by Elyse Horner, as was the makeup. Kudos to the cast and staff for the quick makeup and costume changes between the prolog and Act I! The many apt period costumes were designed by Danielle Preston.
Two tenors are alternating in the role of Hoffmann. The opening night tenor, Jonathan Johnson, set the bar very high. What a wonderful voice! It is even throughout its range with plenty of power and a warm, Italianate tone. He has an abundance of both vocal and physical stamina, having to sing major parts in every scene as well as leaping about quite a lot. He ought to have a major career ahead of him.
Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lazarz was superb in the dual role of Hoffmann's Muse and his companion Nicklausse. Her firm and even voice was delightful throughout, as was her magical delivery in the famous barcarole in Act III and her Muse's arias in the Prologue and Epilogue. The body language and apt costumes made her very believable in the "trouser" roles.
There are few juicier villain bass roles than the Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and the sorcerer Dapertutto, almost always sung by a single singer. Guest artist Bradley Smoak, a former Fletcher Fellow, was magnificent. His resonant, wicked laugh was an audience favorite. He is a superb singer-actor, in character every moment, and possessing a wonderfully flexible voice with a beautiful tone.
Some productions use the same singer as Stella, whose appearance is brief, and as Hoffmann's three loves. LaCosse's choice of using four separate singer-actors was very satisfying both dramatically and vocally.
Soprano Megan Cleaveland had power and limitless high notes to spare as the very forceful mechanical doll, Olympia. Her intonation was breathtaking, as was her ability to execute changes of dynamics, instantly. Her voice was laser-like in its relentless precision. She made the most possible of the sight gags developed by the director.
Soprano Jaclyn Surso bought considerable pathos to the tragic role of Antonia. She had plenty of vocal power and refined dynamic control along with a pleasing tone. Soprano Kate Farrar was dramatically and vocally superb as the heartless courtesan Giulietta. Her strong and evenly produced voice has a pleasing tone and she skillfully controlled its color and dynamics to convey her character's seductive powers. Soprano Alex Pawlus, a freshman at the UNCSA, was effective in the brief role of Stella in the Epilogue.
The large ensemble cast of characters made solid contributions. Having to embody multiple characters gave each singer scope to shine. Cognizant voice lovers' ears perked up early in the Prologue when baritone Daren Jackson, a sophomore, sang robustly a ribald song about the tavern owner Luther. Tenor Anthony Zanghi was Andrès, the taciturn messenger of Stella, in the Prologue and Epilogue.
Tenor Adam Ulrich was given the most scope to display his talents. In the Prologue and Epilogue, he sang the role of the student, Nathanael, very well. His skills blossomed as he took on the role of the crazy inventor Spalanzani in Act I. He was a hit as the deaf and daft servant of Crespel in Act II, with his arthritic gait and his hilarious aria about his mastery of Dance. As Schlémil's servant Pitichinaccio in Act III, he managed to evoke both disgust and pity through his twisted physical contortions as he hobbled about worshipping the cruel Giulietta.
Baritone Thao Nguyen was a solid vocalist as Schlémil, Dappertutto's expendable servant and the current lover of Giulietta. Mezzo-soprano Alden Pridgen performed the role of the voice of Antonia's mother in Act II. She blended well with Surso's soprano as the latter sang herself to death. Bass Patrick Scully was firmly voiced as the tavern keeper Luther while he was able to flesh out a more tragic depth as Antonia's father, Crespel, in Act II.
Congratulations to Kate Farrar, Jonathan Johnson, and Daren Jackson, who were equal first place winners of the N.C. District Auditions of the Metropolitan Opera National Council.
Tales will be repeated Sunday and Tuesday. For details, see the sidebar.