Opera: 'Hoffmann' At The Walnut

Posted: April 14, 1986

Quickly, to the point: The Pennsylvania Opera Theater's production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann is a delight.

The work is presented, like everything by this company, in an English translation, and in a version that includes several cuts and rearrangements of the score. More on them later; suffice here to say that the opera - which opened on Saturday at the Walnut Street Theater, where it will be repeated on Friday and Saturday nights - features a strong cast, smart direction by Maggie Harrer and fine, supple orchestral playing under the group's artistic director, Barbara Silverstein.

For this work, a particularly difficult one to cast, Silverstein has found several outstanding young singers to occupy the major roles. As is customary, she has given to one soprano the various female leads - Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta and Stella - and placed a single vocalist in the roles of Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto. Both Christine Donahue and Stanley Wexler excelled in the diverse roles.

Pinpoint accuracy hitting the highest notes in her range; an easy, natural trill; a strong, penetrating voice when necessary; a graceful, diverse and well-considered musical style - Donahue brought all these to her work.

Wexler's devilish characters benefited from his full-blown, dark voice and his good acting. Opposite him, Michael Ballam sang Hoffmann, looking very much like the Don Johnson of the opera stage. He sang well throughout, his light tenor suited to the part, though it did have a tendency to become raspy at the top.

Nicklausse, written for a mezzo portraying a male but occasionally undertaken by a baritone, was given here to mezzo Luretta Bybee, who turned the role into a sort of tomboyish woman, and who made an appealing presence on stage and sang with distinction throughout.

The remainder of the cast members generally held up their ends. Patrick Riley was disappointing as the comic characters Franz, Cochenille and Pitichinaccio. He played them as slapstick roles when most everyone else in this production took a more understated approach.

Harriet Harris, as Antonia's mother, displayed a small voice; Mark Gargiulo as Spalanzani, might have, like Riley, toned down the slapstick; Paul Messal's Schlemil seemed an oddly awkward presence, as if the singer hadn't been quite sure what motivated his character. So too with Lawrence Adam's Crespel, who came off as mostly a passive hand-wringer, though one did get some sense he loved Antonia.

As for the production itself, the cuts and changes of Offenbach's unfinished and confusing text were largely convincing, giving greater breadth and coherence to Nicklausse's role as Hoffmann's muse and as his real, best love. Some of the dialogue, which had been turned into recitatives by Ernest Guiraud after Offenbach's death, were, thankfully, restored to spoken form, and the transitions between speech and song had been gracefully handled.

The order of acts was revised with the stories of the last two females switched. That is, Hoffmann tells of his misfortunes with Olympia, Antonia and then Giulietta. The sequence now suggests - reasonably - that, by the end, Hoffmann has given up love for lust, yet that even on this score he must be disappointed.

Quibbles arise over some awkwardness in translation and several details (why is Nicklausse identified by a character in Act I - as Mr. Nicklausse, incidentally - but goes apparently unseen by characters in Acts II or III, for instance?). And the artsy, abstract sets, by Michael Zansky, are intriguing but not entirely satisfying.

To his credit, Zansky has turned the Olympia scene into something witty, what looks like a kind of new-wave party at an art gallery; Antonia's set, however, has little to say for itself. And while the Giulietta sequence is visually arresting - all dark red and black - it gives no sense of place, undermining some of the relationship between music and action; the barcarolle - a Venetian boat song, after all - now has no connection to the scene.

But, make no mistake: This production opens the company's 10th season, a decade that has seen the organization grow from a shoestring operation to an outfit with a healthy budget and an increasingly widespread reputation for excellent productions. The Tales of Hoffmann proves that the reputation is richly deserved.

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN

Written by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbiere and Michel Carre, conducted by Barbara Silverstein, directed by Maggie Harrer, settings by Michael Zansky, costumes by Steven Feldman, lighting by Fred Hancock. Presented by The Pennsylvania Opera Theater at the Walnut Street Theater. Ends Saturday.

Hoffmann - Michael Ballam

Olympia, other roles - Christine Donahue

Lindorf, other roles - Stanley Wexler

Muse/Nicklausse - Luretta Bybee

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