An inspired Futral and fine cast overcome the distractions in FGO’s mostly successful “Hoffmann”
“Well, that was the best singing robot I’ve ever heard,” commented one man after the first act of Florida Grand Opera’s production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.
The soprano Elizabeth Futral’s virtuoso performance as a coloratura-spinning fembot Olympia was the highlight of a largely successful production of Offenbach’s story of a young poet’s frustrated search for romantic love. Only an excess of onstage gimmickry Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami marred a performance marked by fine singing and another superb outing by the orchestra, this time under conductor Lucy Arner.
The opera tells the story of a poet torn between love for an opera singer and duty to his art. To an audience at a Nuremberg tavern, as he waits for his girlfriend to finish a performance, he recounts failed attempts at love with the mechanical doll Olympia, the mortally ill singer Antonia and the Venetian courtesan Giulietta. Each of these affairs is portrayed in flashbacks, with a different figure of evil—a bass-baritone, naturally—showing up each time to thwart Hoffmann’s plans.
Offenbach had intended that a single singer handle all four of Hoffmann’s love interests. Yet this is a challenging feat, one requiring a wide range of styles, and many productions field different sopranos for the individual roles. Not many sopranos even try to attempt it.
Futral, singing all four roles for the first time in her career, succeeded triumphantly. Wearing a 50-pound robot costume, she brought pin-point accuracy to Olympia’s ridiculously difficult, mechanical coloratura parody. The soprano also showed a natural sense of humor as she robotically ran away from Hoffmann, bumping into things along the way.
As the opera singer Antonia, Futral’s rapid vibrato may have been a bit too intense for the gentle aria Elle a fui, la tourterelle. But she brought dramatic lyricism to the role of Giulietta, singing with great power and beauty in her long duet with Hoffmann as she prepares to help the villain steal his reflection.
Rarely will you see a singer grow so much in the course of an evening’s performance as did the tenor David Pomeroy in the role of Hoffmann. The role is a challenging one, occupying the upper register of the tenor’s range and providing an endurance test over the course of the opera.
Pomeroy started out as the weak link in the cast, with a thin sound and notes that lacked a tonal center. Yet while his high notes remained unfocused, his voice grew in heft and security. In the third act his performance of O Dieu! de quelle ivresse captured Hoffmann’s love and desperation with a power, depth and intensity absent previously. And in the ensuing duet, he was a worthy counterpart to Futral.
As Councillor Lindorf and the three satanic figures that ruin Hoffmann’s plans, the bass-baritone Bradley Garvin made a formidable villain. Tall, bearded and imposing, he sang with a vocal power equal to his menacing physique. Garvin employed a rich, sinister voice as he cooed evilly to the diamond he would use to bribe Giulietta, and provided a firm and lustrous bass in the trio with Antonia and her mother’s singing portrait. Set and costume designer Andre Barbé equipped Garvin with a variety of effective guises, giving him an Albert Einstein hairpiece as the mad optometrist Coppélius, and making him resemble a silent-movie villain, with whitened face, tails and a Franz Liszt hairdo as the murderous Dr. Miracle.
In the roles of Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio (and Offenbach, of which more later), Matthew DiBattista made an effective comic actor, achieving the difficult feat of singing well while pretending to sing badly in Frantz’s aria Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre. As Nicklausse and The Muse, the mezzo-soprano Katherine Rohrer provided a strong, bright voice, with some loss of control in her high notes.
Offenbach died before putting together the definitive version of this opera, and musicologists and conductors have inserted, deleted, and rearranged various pieces of it ever since. The version performed by Florida Grand Opera was that prepared by the American musicologist Michael Kaye, based partly on recently discovered manuscript pages. There’s music here that many Hoffmann lovers may not have heard before and some familiar sections that are absent (although FGO made a concession to popular taste by retaining the well-known aria Scintille, diamant.)
The production had been originally created for Opera Colorado, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Boston Lyric Opera. In a program note, the director Renaud Doucet explains that he was inspired by the many versions of the work to “offer the idea that the opera itself is a labyrinth. . . . And what if Offenbach himself is the one misleading us through it all: by hiding parts of his score and by playing some roles he has stolen from the singers?”
And so the performance opened with the unveiling of a statue of Offenbach that comes to life, takes over some of the roles and appears at various points in the opera to conduct the music or leave pieces of manuscript paper on the stage. The backdrop included lots of M. C. Escher-like images of hallways and staircases that lead nowhere. This dull, irrelevant subplot has nothing to do with the actual score, and was frequently distracting but not enough to fatally undermine the production.
Still, even with this weird framing device, there was a lack of unity to the staging, which seemed more a collection of set pieces and jumping-off points for jokes than a cohesive artistic whole. In the patented low-brow Doucet/FGO comedy style, there were also lots of heavy-handed and witless attempts at humor, such as attaching a couple of fake legs to Olympia, which Futral was required to raise or spread in crudely suggestive poses. Such moments had the effect of over-playing the comic aspect of the opera at the expense of its darker and more subtly sinister side.
A bright spot throughout the performance was the excellent work of the orchestra, with conductor Arner conveying both the tripping, energetic sections of Offenbach’s score, as well as its ominous moments, as with the accompaniment to Dr. Miracle’s evil musings on Antonia’s health.
Florida Grand Opera’s production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann repeats Jan. 22, 25, 28 and 30 and Feb. 2 and 5 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and Feb. 10 and 12 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. www.fgo.org; 800-741-1010.
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Sun Jan 23, 2011
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