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Grabby Hoffmann

Baltimore Opera’s Tales Of Hoffmann Keeps Audiences Under Its Spell

ROBOT LOVE: Valeria Esposito is a circa-1800 android and Gerard Powers is her human suitor in Tales of Hoffmann.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/4/2005

The Tales of Hoffmann; Jacques Offenbach; libretto by Jules Barbier

At the Lyric Opera House through May 8

The Baltimore Opera Company often seems rudderless, but it does have someone with a genuine artistic vision and the talent to realize those ambitions. That’s Christian Badea, who frequently conducts BOC productions, including such memorable shows as Tannhauser and Elektra. Badea gets a clean, brisk sound out of the orchestral pit, and that bright momentum helps the company shed its stodginess.

In Europe recently Badea has been directing as well as conducting operas. Returning to Baltimore, he assumes both roles for The Tales of Hoffmann and elicits the same lean vividness from the singers onstage that he usually gets from the musicians below. As a result, this old war-horse of a show has a new spring in its gait. The comedy is actually funny, the romance heartbreaking, and the melodies enchanting. This is a very long opera—three acts, a lengthy prologue, and a substantial epilogue—but Badea sustains our interest until the end.

Much of the prologue is set in a basement tavern, and Badea sends his chorus of young male students tumbling down the twin stairs where they spill onto the long benches and atop the long tables. This surge of movement matches the rousing drinking song from composer Jacques Offenbach and his librettist Jules Barbier. Before long, the drunken hero of the opera, E.T.A. Hoffmann, comes stumbling down the same stairs. When the students beg Hoffmann, a well-known writer, for a story, he obliges them with a funny tale about a ridiculous-looking court official called Kleinzach.

Gerard Powers, the handsome young American who plays Hoffmann in Baltimore, is an energetic, if not always controlled, actor. During the Kleinzach song, he stomps through the tavern in imitation of a hunchback with giant horns. But in the middle of this comic number, Hoffmann gets distracted by the memory of his new love, the opera singer Stella, and segues into a love song that showcases Offenbach’s gift for melody and Powers’ gorgeous tenor. Then, just as smoothly, Powers segues back into the catchy sing-along of the Kleinzach song. Badea will guide the opera through similarly sudden, similarly smooth shifts all evening.

Swaying unsteadily in the tavern, Hoffmann promises his audience of drunken students that he will tell them three more stories about his unhappy luck in love. The curtain closes and reopens on the workshop of the mad inventor Dr. Spalanzani. He specializes in building androids, and his latest creation is Olympia, a doll so lifelike that Spalanzani introduces her as his daughter. Ever the romantic, Hoffmann not only believes the doctor but also falls in love with Olympia. (It’s hard to understand how he could be fooled by such stiff, unnatural movements, but maybe he thought she was an opera singer.) Soprano Valeria Esposito proves an inspired actress and pulls off the virtuoso aria “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” convincingly.

The second story opens in the house of Dr. Crespel, whose daughter Antonia has driven herself into life-threatening exhaustion by her attempts to match the singing career of her famous mother. But when she remembers her old boyfriend, Hoffmann, she can’t stop herself from singing a lovely aria, and when Hoffmann unexpectedly shows up she joins him in an even more dizzying duet. This is the musical high point of the evening, for Powers and soprano Antonia Cifrone have the two best voices in the cast, and they use them thrillingly here.

The third story is set in a Venetian brothel where nearly naked courtesans sprawl on plush divans beneath scarlet lights. Hoffmann is in love with the star prostitute, Giulietta, but she agrees to trap his soul for the magician Dappertutto in exchange for a diamond ring. Victoria Livengood, the soprano who plays Giulietta, has a big voice but little of the sensuality you want from the role. This scene, which climaxes in the lamest sword fight you will ever see onstage, is the weakest segment of the show.

Alain Fondary plays all four of the story’s villains—the rich, old lecher Lindorf who taunts Hoffmann in the tavern; the rival inventor Dr. Coppelius who causes Olympia to dance so fast that she literally spins apart; the homicidal physician Dr. Miracle who tempts Antonia to sing like her mother; and Dappertutto. Fondary has only an ordinary baritone, but he uses it well, especially in the second tale. Bald and menacing in a long, black-leather coat, he mesmerizes Antonia, and when she has sung herself to death, he steps into a burning fireplace as if descending into hell.

This is typical of Badea’s inspired stage direction. He does even better by the music. Working with two special voices—Powers’ and Cifrone’s—and a large cast of competent voices, he strips away all needless embellishment to make Offenbach’s melodies sparkle and then wraps those tunes in lush but precise harmonies. If the Baltimore Opera Company is to ever rise above its provincial status, Badea will lead the way.

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