The 2016 Opera Festival got off to an excellent start with a production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann that was at once, a vocal and comedic delight. A team of young vocalists took to the stage under the dramatic direction of CMDFTT musical director, June Nathaniel and veteran stage director, Dr Helmer Hilwig. The duo, once again, pulled off an operatic triumph, producing a strong chorus that was both theatrically and musically sound while the accompaniment, prominently featuring US-based pianist, Dr Jefferey Middleton was shaped by Nathaniel’s expert direction.
Tales of Hoffmann, based on three short stories by German author E T A Hoffmann (whose name you may recognise as the writer of the Christmas classic, The Nutcracker) sets the author himself as the protagonist and tells of the young, eccentric poet’s amorous adventures that transport him to different realms where love (or at the very least, strong infatuation) leads him to a series of comical mishaps, that culminate in a greater understanding of the nature of love.
The poet falls for, in their own turn, a “living” doll, a courtesan and a young woman suffering from a mysterious illness.
The structure of the opera itself is subject to much interpretation, as Offenbach passed away before he could compose the ending. Creative director, Natalia Dopwell, boasted of the “unique version” presented, explaining that the foundation had used a number of influences, largely borrowing from the Schirmer edition, with changes for greater dramatic and contextual clarity.
“There is no right way to end the opera,” she proclaimed, explaining that many composers have made their own dramatic and musical input over the centuries.
Instrumental in bringing Hoffmann’s fantastical realms to life was mas maven Brian MacFarlane, whose set design was strategic, constructive and colourful; even at the times when it was minimalistic, it was no less effective, successfully alluding to the drunken imaginings of the crazed and passionate protagonist, whose tales became more excitingly fanciful with each episode.
MacFarlane’s work meshed extremely well with veteran costumer designer, Margaret Sheppard’s pieces, which could not have done a better job of conceptualising the fashion of the period with the spirit of a vibrant Caribbean and the fantasy of Hoffmann’s worlds.
Celia Wells’ lighting left the stage awash in hues that reflected the dream-like quality of Hoffmann’s enchanted realms and told the audience how to feel, gracefully shifting between quiet home and rowdy tavern, love and war, day and night.
Raguel Gabriel, a returning student of the Stella Adler School of Acting and CMDFTT regular, lead the cast as the passionate and adventurous Hoffmann, winning the audience over with adequate portions of intensity and comic ability. Gabriel appears to do well as romantic leads, pouring some of what he gave us as West Side Story’s Tony, The Magic Flute’s Prince Tamino and Les Mis?rables’ Marius into the titular character. Gabriel put on a vocal display that was flexible and fluid, evincing strong musical theatre influences.
Doctoral music candidate at Ball State University, Maegan Pollonais, appeared as Hoffmann’s muse (often disguised as his best friend, Niklaus) acting as a guardian angel when he would find himself in difficult situations.
Pollonais’ appeared entirely at home on stage, convincingly displaying masculine traits while her character was in disguise.
Her acting was only to be matched by her shimmering, clarion vocals that carried well throughout the hall, never lacking in its equal parts required intensity and sweetness.
Both Gabriel and Pollonais in particular should be singled out for their exemplary vocal stamina, having been charged with the task of delivering fullvoiced pieces from beginning to end of the production without showing signs of exhaustion or loss of vigour.
Tenor Rory Wallace, also a doctoral candidate in music at Ball State University, himself won the audience over with his comical capabilities in the third act, as the dim-witted manservant, Frantz. Wallace sang with a clarity and richness of tone for which our sole complaint is that we wish that we could have heard a little more of him.
Each singular tale contained a villain whose efforts to deceive Hoffmann or to thwart his striving towards true love were expertly executed by Trinbagonian-Canadian baritone, Justin Welch. His sinister demeanour, menacing laughter and unquenchable rage and rancour convincingly evoked the stock villains of our childhood while his robust voice with its even tone and powerful delivery brought an unparallelled vocal richness to the role.
Shellon Antoine’s resounding bass reflected a rare gift that we enjoyed in his appearance in Hoffmann just as much as we did in his portrayal of Sarastro in The Magic Flute while Krisson Joseph’s warm baritone delivered a regal and reverent “shine and glow, precious stone” in the second act. Stage veteran Nigel Floyd lent his pleasant and buoyant tenor to a number of roles in the piece and was certainly a welcome addition to the cast.
Seasoned North American soprano, Cara Adams made her Trinbagonian debut as Antonia, with a shimmering gem of a voice that was hidden away until Act Three. Adams soared in her portrayal of the ill-fated young woman, revealing a full-bodied soprano that only beckons us to invite her to sing on our shores once again. Music theatre alumnus of the Royal Central School of Music and Drama, Shannon Navarro made a brief but memorable appearance as Antonia’s mother, with a sympathetic portrayal, displaying a dark and solid soprano that paired well with Adams’ character. Stephanie Nahous sported bright and lovely vocals as she convincingly channelled genuine seduction and playfulness as the courtesan, Giulietta.
Dopwell brought to life the opera’s most unique character with her depiction of Olympia, the “living” doll. The Manhattan School of Music alumnus delivered the soaring staccato notes of the signature “Doll Song” with almost ridiculous ease, all the while portraying the highly believable mannerisms of a wind-up doll, making her quite a pleasure to watch.
Tales of Hoffmann was a true dramatic and musical triumph and evinced, yet again that opera is alive and well in TT . The final show is on tomorrow.
For more info: ttoperafest.