An inspired Futral and fine cast overcome the distractions in FGO’s mostly successful “Hoffmann”

By David Fleshler

Elizabeth Futral as Olympia & David Pomeroy as Hoffmann in FGO's "The Tales of Hoffmann." Photo: Gaston de Cardenas

“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.

David Pomeroy as Hoffmann and Elizabeth Futral as Antonia. Photo Gaston de Cardenas

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.

Posted in Performances


12 Responses to “An inspired Futral and fine cast overcome the distractions in FGO’s mostly successful “Hoffmann””

  1. Posted Jan 24, 2011 at 11:56 pm by Nina Wall

    and the chorus executed their clever stage business too!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Posted Jan 25, 2011 at 4:40 pm by Vincent Sorisio

    Congratulations on a great production!
    Special congrats to you LUCY!

  3. Posted Jan 26, 2011 at 10:22 am by Wolfgang731

    Beautifully conducted and sung, especially Ms. Futral and Garvin. Whatever problems plagued David Pomeroy on opening night seemed to have been resolved, as I found his singing both secure and nuanced with an appealing and open quality. Let’s face it, the role of Hoffmann is an exercise in endurance and I felt that, while not perfect, he will definitely one day grow completely into the role providing the requisite heft and Gallic refinement. Katherine Rohrer’s Muse/ Nicklausse was effectively and pleasingly rendered and I found no evidence of the “loss of control” in the high notes that Mr. Fleshler indicates. Phillip Skiner’s Crespel/Luther was also excellent, especially in the trio between Crespel/Hoffmann/Dr. Miracle. Matthew DiBattista’s Frantz was a delight. The men’s chorus was fantastic all around but most especially in their final acapella outing. Under Lucy Arner’s skilled leadership the orchestra were inspired. Ms. Arner definitely has an affinity for this work it’s clearly evident from the first note to the last. A great job all around.

  4. Posted Jan 29, 2011 at 2:21 am by Dolly Davis

    I only half agree with Wolfgang. Mr. Pomeroy was indeed nuanced and solid, beautifully poised. I must say that the overall performance had no dramatic pacing, and the audience was so hesitant to applaud, which was a sign of tentative leadership by the conductor. There were far too many bloopers and dangling moments. I think Ms. Arner might have been out of her element, the pacing of the evening sounded quite constipated. But bravo to the lead singers and to FGO for hiring a real A+ cast.

  5. Posted Jan 30, 2011 at 11:08 pm by Charlie Richard Richards

    In general,I felt this was a very lively, well sung and nicely directed “Hoffmann”. The premise, alas, combined with some misinformation given by the pre-show lecturer, however, is misleading.

    Those of us who are familiar with “Les contes d’Hoffmann” have often heard, time and time again, that Offenbach left the work unfinished. Recent scholarship though has shown otherwise – Offenbach had indeed completed the opera to his personal satisfaction all the way up to the end of the Giulietta act. Only the fifth act (the epilogue) had not been finalized, but Offenbach had completed a large amount of material for this act; in fact, the crucially important finale (usually referred to as the “apotheosis”)had been completed as early as 1879 and had been included in the concert of excerpts that Offenbach had performed in his home that year. It is true that Offenbach would have continued to make revisions and changes during rehearsals and even after the premiere had he lived – but this is a moot point indeed – the core of the opera was very much complete at the time of Offenbach’s death (Ernest Guiraud, who is often credited with “completing” the opera, did little more than finish some of the orchestration and, eventually, compose recitatives to replace the opera’s original spoken dialogue, as he had done for Bizet’s “Carmen”.) The basis of the concept behind this production is that Offenbach did not finish the opera, and when one starts off on shaky footing like this, well…

    Secondly, the roles of the four heroines were not written for four distinct vocal types. Offenbach tailored the four roles for Adèle Isaac – a woman with a remarkable range. In order to accommodate her, the composer made both the roles of Olympia AND Giulietta extremely difficult in their use of coloratura. The common statement that Giulietta was written for a mezzo voice (as perpetuated by Miami’s lecturer) is simply not true. Why Futral did not sing the coloratura passages in Giulietta’s aria “l’Amour luit dit: la belle” is a difficult question to answer – as she certainly handled Olympia’s coloratura quite well. But, in any case, they’re there and one need only consult Offenbach’s manuscripts to prove it.

    The version presented in Miami (which has also been seen in Denver, St. Louis & Boston) does a tolerable job in presenting the work as Offenbach left it, using, as it does, the definitive Kaye/Keck edition as its base.Those who are not familiar with Offenbach’s Giulietta act were (or will be) in for a surprise – it is quite different from the traditional version in its dramaturgy, the finale being a radical departure from the ending of the act as it was presented in the original 1851 play (upon which the opera is based)and the more familiar Choudens version (the opera was originally performed without the Giulietta act, and when the act was finally restored in the 2nd Choudens edition, it appeared in a horribly mangled and wretchedly gutted form – here we can blame Guiraud, even though the man was certainly familiar with Offenbach’s original. Almost thirty years later the act was further tampered with by impresario/composer Raoul Gunsbourg for his 1904 Monte Carlo production.

    The version heard in Miami restores (most of) Offenbach’s original pages, some of which had not even been recovered until the late 1990′s! However, a dreadful cut in the finale of the Giulietta act was decided upon by the director : as originally written, as Hoffmann realizes what has been done to him, the guests re-enter and advise him to leave immediately, the police are on his trail for the murder of Schlemil. Dapertutto taunts Hoffmann for lacking a reflection, to which the guests add their mockery. Giulietta (in a brilliant coloratura passage) tells Hoffmann that this is what she does to the men who defy her beauty and that even though she has taken his reflection (read: his soul) she has allowed him to live. The police enter and arrest Hoffmann – it is at THIS point that Hoffmann hurls his vitriol at Giulietta and attempts to kill her. [The act ends with the guests laughing at the entire situation - including Giulietta's affection for the deformed Pitichinaccio - this was also cut in this production]. Not only does omitting the first sequence of events rob both Hoffmann and Giulietta of some magnificent music, it also makes the final denouement much more confusing.

    To add the confusion, our lecturer, in HIS synopsis, related the action of this act as it appears in the TRADITIONAL version (which, as previously stated, is quite different from Offenbach’s original) which not only showed a lack of preparation but, no doubt, probably added to the confusion for anyone coming to this opera for the first time.

    As far as the production, however, it was colorful, tasteful and enjoyable. The idea of bringing Offenbach himself in as a character within the opera is an interesting one, but I did not quite grasp the purpose of having Offenbach sing the roles of Cochenille, Franz and Pitichinaccio. Perhaps this was because, in the Giulietta finale as originally written, Hoffmann slays Pitichinaccio – giving Offenbach the opportunity to “die” at the end of the Giulietta act – which, in real life, is almost precisely what he did (leaving the epilogue, if not incomplete, at least unfinalized).

    But any niggling problems I had during the first four acts were more than made up for by the gorgeous staging of the “apotheosis” – a lovely testimonial to both Offenbach and his genius, which didn’t fail to move this viewer tremendously.

    A hearty round of applause to the entire cast – especially to Futral’s four heroines and to Skiner for his magnificent Crespel.

  6. Posted Jan 30, 2011 at 11:32 pm by Charlie Richard Richards

    By the way, if anyone wants to hear the COMPLETE version of the Kaye edition of this opera (without the annoying cuts made in this production) I heartily recomment the recording on Erato which was released in 1996 featuring Roberto Alagna. The one caveat could not be helped: the recording was made before Offenbach’s final version of the Giulietta finale had been recovered. In its place we have Kaye’s remarkable re-construction of this finale. It is a great credit to Kaye’s scholarship to listen to his re-construction and Offenbach’s final version side-by-side – the two are very similar, and it often appears that Kaye had been, perhaps, channeling Offenbach when he prepared it! If you want to hear the complete, uncut final version of the finale, check out these two Youtube postings:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSrrA-G1Ajk

    and

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XP_O-__mWbw

    to hear Kaye’s earlier reconstruction, check this out:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iD3ijfS76N4

  7. Posted Jan 30, 2011 at 11:38 pm by Charlie Richard Richards

    One further comment: I do not want my comment “The version presented in Miami…does a tolerable job in presenting the work as Offenbach left it, using, as it does, the definitive Kaye/Keck edition as its base” to be misconstrued – it is the editorial decisions made by the team who put this production together which are faulty, NOT the edition itself. The breadth, scope and amount of scholarship put into this edition staggers the imagination, which is why it should be heard complete.

  8. Posted Feb 01, 2011 at 10:45 am by Justin Moss

    If, in fact, I am the lecturer Charlie Richard Richards is referring to, I did not state that the female roles in Hoffmann were written for different voice types, nor that Giulietta was written for a mezzo-soprano. I noted that the vocal requirements for the roles varied remarkably, and that the tessitura for Giulietta is low enough that we often see mezzo-sopranos singing it. Which we do.

  9. Posted Feb 03, 2011 at 2:12 pm by Charlie Richard Richards

    I certainly hope I didn’t offend Mr. Moss too deeply, and he is correct that we very often find a mezzo singing the role of Giulietta. Yet, the tessitura AS OFFENBACH ORIGINALLY WROTE IT is not very low – in fact, it lies within the same range as Olympia’s. The “tradition” of casting a Giulietta as a mezzo with the excuse that the music can be only sung (or most easily sung) by that vocal type is a mistake that originated some time in the early 20th century, the roots of which I’m currently trying to uncover.
    The problem is that one of the Kaye/Keck edition’s principal purposes is to erase or eradicate all the misinformation that has gathered around this opera for the past century or so. Miami is presenting a production using this edition and yet Mr. Moss’ lecture continued to perpetuate these myths.
    I’m sorry if I seem pedantic or antagonistic, and I have no personal grudge against Mr. Moss at all. For the past several years I have been researching this opera intently (including the literary background which brought it about in the first place) for a book-in-progress which I hope will make the true story of this opera’s trials better known to the average opera goer. All misinformation, no matter how readily available on opera websites or in standard opera guides, bothers me, because it seems produce obstacles in the path of the truth. I hope that Mr. Moss has no hard feelings, and understands that my comments merely come from a deep passionate devotion to the work in question.

  10. Posted Feb 04, 2011 at 8:58 am by Kathleen Jordan

    “While many versions of Tales of Hoffmann are possible – the Kaye/Keck IS the definitive edition that comes closest to Offenbach’s intentions. It also clarify’s what Ernest Guiraud, Raoul Gunsbourg and others did to create what is known as the traditional version of the opera. Brava Futral! Bravo Florida Grand Opera.”

  11. Posted Feb 08, 2011 at 6:00 pm by Charlie Richard Richards

    Excellent post from Ms. (Mrs? Miss?)with which I heartily agree. She’s managed to sum up in just a few words the heart of the edition. Brava.
    Just one word more regarding Mr. Moss’ lecture and the edition. In his lecture he mentioned that we would NOT want to hear a performance which uses ALL of the material discovered for the opera. Let me just add that neither would I. Some of this material includes earlier, abandoned versions of many numbers (there are three versions of an Olympia act aria for Nicklausse, for example). In all of these cases (with the exception of the finale/apotheosis which has at least three variants, the best of which, IMO, is the one in which there is a second stanza sung by Stella) there is clearly one version which Offenbach had decided upon, rejecting the others. These are the ones that should be used, they represent Offenbach’s final decisions. The fact is, as I have tried to emphasize, that there really is no need for guess work here. We know what Offenbach wanted and the edition presents this. For the sake of scholarship, the edition includes a second volume with all the earlier variants – this is not so a director can pick and choose. Kaye has referred to his edition as a “Variorium” – a tome which includes every variant reading. Kaye does not, as Fritz Oeser did in his “critical edition”, try to incorporate earlier, rejected versions of numbers into the main body of the text – these are separated in the aforementioned supplementary volume.
    Basta! – I’ll shut up now. I just wanted to make it plain that the MS material is not an unwieldy labyrinth of inconclusive ideas, as some would have us believe.

  12. Posted Feb 09, 2011 at 9:45 pm by Juan Morales

    All I can say about this production is that I have seen 5 productions by Doucet & Barbe – and that is enough. In the future, I would only see a production by this team if it has a BIG name singer that I am JUST dying to hear live.
    Regarding this production, I think FGO trying to show how “clever” they were, might have hurt themselves. Average opera goer, specially the newcomers you are trying to win over, are not really interested in the convoluted history of this opera (or any opera for that matter) Saw several people in the lobby, concerned that they would not enjoy Hoffmann because it sounded so complicated. I had to tell one poor lady not to worry – it really wasn’t as complicated as they made it sound. I also had to explain to a friend that went with me – who “that dark looking man” was and what he was doing on stage. After the explanation I had to explain to him he was not likely to see him in other productions, so not to worry. Sadly, it might be a long time, before I can talk him into seeing another opera with me.

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