Opera review: Tales of Hoffmann has compelling parts that don’t add up to an ideal whole

Tenor Russell Thomas, kneeling centre, in the Canadian Opera Company's Tales of Hoffmann, which opened on Tuesday night at the Four Seasons Centre (Michael Cooper photo).

The Canadian Opera Company’s spring production of The Tales of Hoffmann is the big, sprawling rumpus that composer Jacques Offenbach was looking for. It is well sung and the COC Orchestra under music director Johannes Debus does a voluptious job with a gorgeous score.

But that doesn’t make this a must-see opera.

The problem doesn’t lie with the singers, or this production, originated by Belgium’s Vlaamse Opera a dozen years ago. The problem is with what Offenbach and his librettist, Jules Barbier, did with the material.

Barbier adapted several short stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann into an 1851 play that Offenbach liked. Barbier made some changes and Offenbach wrote a prologue and three acts, then died in 1880, months before the opera’s Paris premiere.

The result, which also includes an epilogue, is a patchwork (the famous “Barcarolle” that opens Act III is borrowed from a much earlier opera of Offenbach’s) that works as a succession of set pieces filled with gorgeous arias.

Anyone looking for a tidy dramatic arc isn’t going to find one. The idea is to sit back and enjoy the operatic entertainment — all 3 1/2 hours of it, with two intermissions.

English director Lee Blakely and set designer Roni Toren have done their best for their COC débuts, using a Tim Burton-esque Victorian aesthetic, to make it clear that everything we see on stage is a figment of the poet Hoffmann’s booze-soaked imagination.

But even their best efforts can’t focus an opera that has no dramatic core.

Instead, we can celebrate the Pashmina-warm mezzo of Lauren Segal as the Muse, bass-baritone John Relyea’s juicy turns as the evil force in each act, and three excellent sopranos gracing each act: Erin Wall’s glowing Antonia, Keri Alkema’s lusty Giulietta and Adriana Chuchman’s comically robotic Olympia.

Tenor Steven Cole deserves special mention for his colourful portrayals of a parade of servants.

The rest of the cast was uniformly solid, and chorus sounded strong and balanced at Tuesday night’s opening at the Four Seasons Centre. Offenbach’s already rich score positively glowed under Debus’s skillful pacing.

At Tuesday performance, Hoffmann was sung by American tenor Russell Thomas, in his COC début. Thomas has a gorgeous, warm tenor that is not very large, but was able to fill the theatre. The singer himself, unfortunately, wasn’t able to project much personality into his part.

Yes, Hoffmann is more observer than participant in these drunken dreams, but when he does sing, most famously the Kleinzach Aria in the Prologue, he needs to add an edge of menace or scorn — or anything sharper than a mere recitation of facts and “click-clacks.”

(Note that David Pomeroy takes over the role of Hoffmann for the May 3 and 8 performances.)

The only other weakness was Jenny Cane’s lighting, which was either murky or harsh, presumably to go with the twisted Victorian Voyage-to-the-Centre-of-Hoffmann’s-Subconscious happening onstage. Its overall blotchiness helped reinforce the lack of dramatic focus on stage.

This Hoffmann is a romp. But a great production? No.

For more details on this production, which runs to May 14, click here.

John Terauds


2 thoughts on “Opera review: Tales of Hoffmann has compelling parts that don’t add up to an ideal whole

  1. Pingback: April 16: Toronto classical concert highlights for the next seven days | Musical Toronto

  2. Tales of Hoffman is one of my favourite operas and I disagree about the thematic weakness. Hoffman spents the whole opera complaining about his lost loves, but really its his own alcoholism that frustrates him. Its beautiful, but also dramatically complex.

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