Making a Spectacle of Themselves

Madison Opera presents The Tales of Hoffman illuminated by flashes of brilliance

 

In making a list of shortcomings (and it is a short list) of Madison Opera’s production of The Tales of Hoffman Friday night at the Overture Center, an inevitable conclusion is reached: the fault lies not in their stars, but inevitably, in the work itself.

Hoffman is one of those tantalizing works which, like the various guises of the villain in the slightly macabre tales, casts an irresistible spell over company directors; indeed, Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith lists it on her top five of personal favorites, and artistic director John DeMain is an ardent champion of the music. Yours truly had never seen it live until last night, and only recently seen it complete on a DVD (a 2014 Teatro Real de Madrid production that will be reviewed in this space in the near future).

The verdict? When Hoffman is good, it’s great—so great musically that one can put aside the awkward circumstances posed by producing the work at all and feel rewarded by those unforgettable stretches. Frankly, for this auditor at least, the work lacks the emotional or even dramatic tug that one’s favorite stage works usually elicit…but long before the final curtain, I was glad that Smith, DeMain and company had closed their season with the flawed work.

Based on a play that was in turn developed from three stories of E.T.A. Hoffman, that gifted artist that so greatly influenced a number of 19th-century Romantic musicians, Hoffman’s problems stem principally from the fact that Offenbach died just before the premiere, and many of the parts were destroyed in a theater fire that occurred during the early performances. It was only in our lifetimes that discoveries of manuscripts have allowed for anything like a definitive staging (which never stopped folks from presenting it anyway). The artistic forces locally, including the return of director Kristine McIntyre (remembered not only for Dead Man Walking but an arresting A Masked Ball a few seasons ago), give us the tales of Hoffman’s three great loves in their proper dramatic order. The sagas of Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta are framed by a Prologue and Epilogue that made a lot more sense than the aforementioned Madrid mounting.

As usual, we get our mix of company debuts and returning favorites, although our Hoffman, Harold Meers, fits both categories. His Madison Opera debut was at last summer’s Opera in the Park, but this was his first staged appearance here. His tenor instrument is strong and expressive, never hinting at strain, and combined with some acting chops, he proves a protagonist who never wears out his welcome. Morgan Smith is the bad guy…well, essentially Satan in various guises. In his local debut, Smith (pictured above,courtesy of James Gill), was particularly persuasive as Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto (he morphs into four roles in all).

As for the leading ladies, if you don’t have an Olympia who can just nail stratospheric pitches that would give the Queen of the Night pause—and sing beautifully enough to make us believe anyone could fall in love with her despite her robotic nature—then Act I is doomed. Never fear: Jeni Houser nails it, and continues to add to her growing number of fervent local fans. It is in her great aria that we also get a wonderful and subtle directorial touch. Hoffman believes her to be human because of some magic eyeglasses he procures from Coppelius; in Olympia’s second verse, Hoffman’s faithful companion, Nicklausse wears them, and we see the effect: Where Olympia was stiff/jerky mechanical in the first verse, now her movements are natural.

In that actual dual role of friend (Nicklausse) and Muse, Adriana Zabala (pictured below, courtesy of James Gill), proves she has physical and vocal gifts well suited to the so-called “trousers” role, and her voice may prove strong enough to someday handle Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (by the way, is there a donor out there with about $200,000 to indulge some Strauss fans in that miraculous work?).

Hoffman 2 AZ

The other major female singer is Sian Davies, also in her Madison debut, as both Antonia and Giulietta. It is the former heroine, in Act 2, where for this listener the opera’s greatest music lives, and Davies and Meers produced a vocal chemistry that did indeed weave a magic spell.

Mention must also be made of Jared Rogers; seen here in Sweeney Todd he makes the most of multiple supporting roles, with a fabulous turn as the deaf servant Frantz in Act 2.

The sets come from Virginian Opera, and aid immeasurably in reiterating the point that the bar patrons in the Prologue are hearing Hoffman recount the tales in the ensuing acts (and of course end up back there in the Epilogue). As mentioned, McIntyre rarely makes a directorial misstep (although the crowd scene in Act 3 suddenly seemed static). But in the Prologue in particular, the men’s chorus is as fun to watch as they are to hear, and credit Anthony Cao for his continued fine work as Madison Opera chorus master.Oh and then there’s Madison Symphony, really clicking on all cylinders under DeMain, who clearly translated his affection for the music in a deeply expressive and often delicate reading.

So go see this 19th-century version of “The Twilight Zone” on Sunday afternoon. Aside from guaranteeing you’ll be humming the “Barcarolle” on your way out, you’ll probably be thankful again, as I am, that Madison Opera continues to mix their seasons with the tried and true, the new and worthy…and the occasional operatic road less traveled by.

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