14 Aug 2011
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Wolf Trap
For opera lovers who are serious enough to even think of a performing career, the path is an arduous one.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
For opera lovers who are serious enough to even think of a performing career, the path is an arduous one.
The modern operatic world is extremely competitive and the audience, while widening due to the recent plethora of audience-building initiatives, is still to an extent comprised of a small portion of the general population who believes in this art form with something akin to religious fervor. The chances of success are small, yet still, the prospect of immortal glory, as won by Joan Sutherland or Beverly Sills, is tantalising. This is where organisations such as Wolf Trap Opera serve an invaluable purpose in the modern classical music world. Like vocal competitions or alliances between fine art academies and performing institutions, it is designed to outfit participants with the skills to succeed in the modern operatic world.
This season, Wolf Trap closes with Offenbach’s popular opéra fantastique, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. At first glance, Les Contes d’Hoffmann may seem like an improper vehicle through which to present student singers. Its principal roles verge on the epic, each placing a unique set of demands on the singer, which seem to increase as the opera progresses.
The opera’s performance history is convoluted. After Offenbach finished the opera itself, the delay required for him to rewrite and raise the tessituras of the four heroines was quite literally fatal; he died before he was able to orchestrate the opera. This, combined with a string of fires in opera houses performing the piece, leaves modern organizations with a dearth of materials and a wealth of questions. I am happy to report that despite it all, Wolf Trap’s decision to perform Les Contes d’Hoffmann was a risk that, on the whole, paid off.
Conductor Israel Gursky managed to bring out all facets of Offenbach’s majestic score. His reading, which presented the opera in the tradition of French Grand Opera from the turn of the 20th century, was not at all hindered by the decision to use spoken dialogue instead of recitative. At times, his choice of tempo seemed a little slow, as in the case of Councilor Lindorf’s opening aria, as well as the ever-popular “Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille” by Olympia. However, in each case, he seemed to sacrifice speed in order to gain a deeper understanding, either of the character or of the music in general.
Wolf Trap’s production is commendable for several reasons. Offenbach had originally conceived the four heroines to be sung by a single soprano. Since the opera’s creation, few sopranos, Sills and Sutherland among them, have done so. Personally, I prefer each heroine to be sung by a different soprano, as each character is so complex, both vocally and psychologically, that it is very hard to imagine a soprano so gifted as to be able to bring out the complexities of each character. Additionally, the decision to divide the heroines among four sopranos allowed for more students to participate.
In this case, each heroine did a commendable job. As Olympia, coloratura Jamie-Rose Guarrine sang with polish, yet the timbre of her voice suggested that she was capable of doing more than just a series of vocal acrobatics. Although, it must be said that she lacked physical presence. She lacked the precise physical movements needed to execute the role, making this Olympia more humanoid than automaton.
As Antonia, Marcy Stonikas sang with power and lyricism. Toward the end of the act’s closing trio, she seemed to lose stamina, but recovered. Her capable physical acting deserves mention because she was 37 weeks pregnant while doing it.
Eve Gigliotti made for a noteworthy Guilietta, as she is perhaps the most lyrical singer I’ve heard in the role. At times, her acting bordered on the demonic. She clearly seemed to relish Hoffmann’s pain, which only turned to sorrow after Hoffmann killed her beloved companion, Pitichinaccio.
There were several caprimarios who deserve mention. Edward Mout, as Frantz, commanded attention, both vocally and physically. This is quite extraordinary, as Frantz doesn’t seem to have a purpose outside of comic relief. Kenneth Kellogg made a strong vocal case for both Crespel and Schlémil.
This production can also take credit for presenting a version of Hoffmann that was true to the work’s dramatic potential, while at the same time unearthing other previously unseen complexities. The acts followed the order of Olympia, Antonia, then Guilietta. Some Hoffmann scholars, like Richard Bonynge, believe in placing the Antonia act last as a way of strengthening Hoffmann’s belief in idealized poetic love. However, placing the courtesan last emphasizes the idea that Hoffmann’s three relationships form a trajectory that rises and falls.
This strengthens the contrast between poetic idealism and reality, and Nathaniel Peake brought this aspect of the leading role to life with painstaking clarity. He also deserves credit for controlling his stamina through this marathon role, not to mention singing a part whose performance history includes Plácido Domingo and Nikolai Gedda. His strong performance made one forget his occasional difficulties with the French language.
The crowning achievement of this production is the conception of Niklausse, played so deftly by Catherine Martin. As Hoffmannn’s poetic muse, she was far more than the androgynous confidant of other productions. Like Craig Irvin, who played the four villians, she brought a mix of severity and comedy to the role. One got the feeling that she was along for the ride waiting for Hoffmannn to realize that the woman who was there all along was the love of his life. Hoffmannn’s realization at the end brought a sense of closure that other productions lack.
The works of E.T.A Hoffmannn are no stranger to classical music. Tchaikovsky based his ballet, The Nutcracker, on Hoffmannn’s work as well. The problems these works present depends largely on the composer’s ability to see past the maze of lifelike automatons, demonic courtesans, and oversized rats to the essential humanity of the story being told. Wolf Trap Opera can congratulate itself on meeting all the demands that Les Contes d’Hoffmann poses and presenting a fluid, dramatic conception of the opera, which is perhaps the most human yet.