Lent the wrong tenor, the women provide the highlights in Palm Beach Opera’s “Tales of Hoffmann”

By David Fleshler

Eleni Calenos as Antonia and Christopher Bengochea as Hoffmann in Palm Beach Opera's production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann."

Eleni Calenos as Antonia and Christopher Bengochea as Hoffmann in Palm Beach Opera’s production of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”

Palm Beach Opera’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann offers a trio of terrific sopranos as the hero’s loves and a world-class baritone as the villain who thwarts Hoffmann at every turn.

It also offered a last-minute replacement as the lead tenor, whose rough singing undermined the production, along with lots of low-comedy turns in small roles that were an annoying, if predictable, part of the performance.

For its last opera of the season, the company turned to Jacques Offenbach’s final work, in which the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann tells the story of his attempts to find love, each resulting in spectacular failure.

The company replaced tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in the leading role of Hoffmann, saying in a cryptic statement issued Wednesday that he “is unable to perform the services required.” Unfortunately, neither was his substitute, Christopher Bengochea.

The tenor may have just been having a bad night, but Bengochea’s singing Friday at the Kravis Center was underprojected and marked by raspy high notes, difficulty in sustaining an even vocal line and a tendency to swallow up notes before they could really be heard. His Prologue aria “Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach” was a subdued affair, lacking any zip or style. Worse, there was no urgency or vocal gleam in his expressions of love to the three women in his life, with no trace of the desperate passion that’s essential in the role.

Fortunately, there was a lot of good singing, too. The role of the robot Olympia, with whom Hoffmann first falls in love, calls on the soprano to perform one of the showiest arias in the repertoire. So how did stage director Jay Lesenger provide the soprano Ashley Emerson with the support to help her concentrate on this difficult number? He made her do it on roller skates. Surprisingly, this turned out to work great, one of the best moments of the evening. The pint-sized singer gamely rolled around the stage, with the skates making her appear all the more mechanical as she rolled like a shopping cart away from the amorous Hoffmann.

In the Doll Song, Emerson nailed the fast-moving, leaping notes with accuracy and assurance, with natural comic timing that brought wit to the role without crossing over into slapstick. Beyond that, she brought a rare lyricism to an aria that’s often treated as simply a whirlwind of virtuosity. While such a songful approach may not have been entirely in character for a singing fembot, it made for an effective treatment of the aria.

Another standout was the Greek soprano Eleni Calenos as Antonia, the gifted but desperately ill singer who is Hoffmann’s second love. In the aria “Elle a fui, la tourterelle,” her voice retained its richness and ease of production all the way to the top, with a natural sense of phrasing and pathos. A wonderful moment came in her trio with the baritone Mark Delavan as the sinister Doctor Miracle and mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts as the spirit of her mother. With Delavan urging her on in his dark, robust voice, she sang with more and more intensity, with a sense of ecstasy, desperation and doom as she approached death.

As Giuletta, the courtesan who horribly betrays Hoffmann, the soprano Keri Alkema brought a dramatic manner and an imposing voice to the role. In an opulent, dark-hued voice, well-centered and with an even vibrato, she radiated seductive menace as she persuaded Hoffmann to surrender to her his reflection.

Mark Delavan, as the sinister baritone who thwarts Hoffmann’s attempts to find love, delivered a performance of vocal splendor, with an alluring relish for his own evil. Delavan, who portrayed Wotan in last season’s production of Wagner’s Ring at the Metropolitan Opera, portrayed Counselor Lindorf and his various incarnations with a powerful, darkly gleaming voice. Bearded and physically imposing as he loomed over the other singers, Delavan delivered a velvety flow of notes as he steered Antonia toward death and sang to the diamond that he would use to bribe Giulietta.

In contrast to the highly effective decision to put Olympia on roller skates, there was a lot of weak low comedy elsewhere. In servant roles in the different acts, the tenor Matthew DiBattista was made to overact, moving in a weird, jerky manner—was he a robot too?—in the Olympia act and going way over the top in what’s intended to be an off-tone aria as the hard-of-hearing servant Franz in the Antonia act.

A real strength of the performance throughout were the multiple roles juggled by Irene Roberts. She brought a gleaming mezzo and seamlessly phrased singing to the roles of Hoffmann’s servant Nicklausse, The Muse and Antonia’s Mother. Whether performing with subtle comedic timing as Hoffmann’s male servant or as the demanding Muse urging him to forgo love for literature, she was a vivacious, charismatic stage presence.

Although the sets designed by Erhard Rom were not opulent, they were an imaginative creation of the fantasy world in which the opera takes place, with towering walls of bottles for the tavern, a giant violin for the Antonia scene and nightmarishly shaped mirrors against a starry sky for the scene with Giulietta. .

The orchestra, a reliable strength of Palm Beach Opera productions, gave a lively, resonant performance under conductor Christian Knapp, from the languorous, romantic Barcarolle to the sinister, serpentine figures that accompany the plotting of Lindorf in his various guises. The chorus, under chorus master Greg Ritchey, provided well-balanced, polished singing, with a lusty account of the songs by Hoffmann’s group of drinking buddies.

Palm Beach Opera’s repeats Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. pbopera.org; 561-833-7888.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Lent the wrong tenor, the women provide the highlights in Palm Beach Opera’s “Tales of Hoffmann””

  1. Posted Mar 24, 2014 at 6:34 pm by Karel Miller

    I hope you wrote a better review and an apology to Christopher Bengochea, the substitute for the lead in Tales of Hoffman, this past weekend. Saturday Night 3/22/14 he had such command of the role and was in complete control of his instrument throught out the entire performance. The audience couldn’t get enough of him as he portrayed the love sick Hoffman.

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Sat Mar 22, 2014
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