Review: Aspen Opera Center delivers on ‘Tales of Hoffmann’
August 18, 2018
Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" demands a big cast of staunch singers who can sketch characters quickly, fashion arias and ensembles deftly, and balance drama with touches of the macabre and sly humor. There wasn't a weak link in the second of three performances by the Aspen Opera Center in the Wheeler Opera House.
The all-student cast, orchestra and crew, heard Thursday evening, came through with a thoroughly professional performance, from the title role, sung by tenor Roy Hage, to the smallest cameo. Conductor George Manahan, for whom this music is his own personal neighborhood, brought out French stylistic details that registered the drama and musical inventiveness of this late 19th-century score (the final touches completed after the composer's death in 1880).
The role of Hoffmann is what opera veterans call a "big sing." A key part of the prologue, epilogue and all three acts, he acts as both storyteller and protagonist. Hage never lost his poise, singing with unerring sweetness and clarity even if he backed off on some heroic climaxes to preserve his voice.
The tales of the title are the back-story to why he broods in Luther's Tavern while his inamorata, the opera singer Stella, stars in "Don Giovanni" next door. Hoffmann is a writer and poet who entertains a lusty men's chorus with the story of his three great loves — the mechanical doll Olympia, the sickly soprano Antonia and the opportunistic courtesan Giulietta — each of which get a full act. The cast captured the humor in these sendups of common operatic tropes without losing the essential drama, and had fun with the spooky side of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the model for the title role.
Credit Edward Berkeley, who heads up the Opera Center, with directing all this with an eye toward the telling interpersonal moments. If the staging sidestepped traditional effects such as a painting that comes to life and a mirror that doesn't reflect, a focus on the key elements of the human drama more than made up for it. Each individual on the often-crowded stage had something to add to the mix.
Chief among the cast for sheer vocal presence and power were mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, voicing Hoffmann's mentor and muse Nicklausse with a creamy sound, cutting an androgynous figure in a three-piece suit; and bass-baritone Hunter Enoch, rock-solid vocally as all four of Hoffmann's nemeses, an oddly shaped red hair and beard identifying him as he lurked around the edges of every scene. He created a demonic aura every time he stepped forward.
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Among the three great loves, soprano Elizabeth Novella dazzled with rich sound and impressive intensity as Antonia, the singer who's told not to sing but does anyway (spoiler alert: to her death). Mezzo-soprano Alyssa Dessoye managed to seem both cunning and subservient as she pointed her lush sound into Giulietta's music. As Olympia, the mechanical doll, Sydney Baedke deployed a light, lyric soprano and enough coloratura to make it work.
In peripheral roles, two standouts were tenor Alexander Gmeinder, scooting around the stage on a rolling stool as Cochenille in the Olympia act and interjecting vocally with precision, and tenor Christopher Wolf as the comic-relief deaf butler Frantz in the Antonia act. Clad in what can best be described as a rumpled rouched gray suit, he drew guffaws, and sang his calling-card aria with panache.
As Antonia's mother mezzo-soprano Noragh Devlin, who delivered a fine comic turn as Berta in Rossini's "Barber of Seville" earlier this summer, completed a powerful vocal trio (with Novella and Enoch) in the climax of the second act. Ensemble singing was a strong point throughout, especially the sextet that tops off the Giulietta act, a textbook example of characterful singing that transcended the notes on the page.
The final of three performances is tonight.
There's more singing in Sunday's season grand finale in the Benedict Music Tent as Aspen alums Tamara Wilson (soprano) and Ryan McKinney (baritone) voice excerpts from Wagner's "Die Walküre," joining the Aspen Festival Orchestra under music director Robert Spano's baton. Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" closes the proceedings.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
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