Palm Beach Opera’s superb cast delivers an aptly harrowing “Hoffmann”

By David Fleshler

Kang Wang and Kathryn Lewek in The Tales of Hoffmann at Palm Beach Opera. Photo: Bruce Bennett

A story of three love affairs that end in catastrophe came to ghastly life Friday in Palm Beach Opera’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann.

The French composer Jacques Offenbach’s masterpiece, performed at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, tells the story of the poet Hoffmann as he entertains a tavern full of revelers with his romantic failures, in scenes that sweep across Germany and Italy.

Excellent singing in all major roles, vivid playing by the orchestra and visually striking sets made this one of the company’s most successful productions in years. Subtle stage action—except when circumstances demanded something else—under director David Gately allowed the horror of Hoffmann’s misadventures to come through effectively.

Imaginative, moodily lit scenery from Virginia Opera gave the performance the menacing allure of a good nightmare. The tavern in Nuremberg, with white-draped tables and towering racks of bottles, formed the backdrop for all the scenes, a funhouse-like inventor’s workshop, a house in Munich and a Venetian palace with a grotesquely elongated mirror.

Particularly effective was Act 1, in which Hoffmann falls in love with what would turn out to be a mechanical doll at the home of the machine’s inventor. Lit in lurid pink light, with pink balloons, a giant portrait of an eye and guests clad in Edwardian suits, sparkly dresses and sunglasses, the dissolute scene resembled a fashionable Haight-Ashbury LSD party.

The role of the poet Hoffmann is famously demanding, requiring sustained singing at the upper register of the tenor voice, not surprisingly in a work in which Hoffmann spends much of the time at the edge of desperation.

The tenor Kang Wang’s voice was particularly strong at the higher reaches, focused, vivid, powerful and sustained to the very end of the opera. He united this to a fine-drawn, naturalistic portrait of a man constantly frustrated in his attempts to find the right woman.

In his ardent love song to Olympia, the intensity of his voice seemed to increase with every ascending phrase. He could lighten his voice and achieve a restless urgency in his duet with Antonia. In the scene with the courtesan Giulietta, he sang with a sustained legato in his love duet with the flinty-eyed object of his affection. The role will be sung Saturday by Dominick Chenes.

The role of the three women with whom Hoffmann fails is often split among different singers, since one role requires light coloratura virtuosity while the others call for more lyric soprano voices.

The soprano Kathryn Lewek took all three roles with fine results. It was no surprise that she would give a dazzling performance in Act 1 as the singing doll Olympia, nailing the high notes, trills and rapid staccato passages, not just with accuracy but with style. Lewek is known for her mastery of a role that requires similar virtuosity, the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, a role she’s sung many times at the Metropolitan Opera and which she sang at Palm Beach Opera in 2021.

She brought off the more conventional soprano roles as well. Particularly moving was her portrayal of the doomed singer Antonia, giving a sweet-toned performance of “Elle a fui, la tourterelle,” in which she yearns for Hoffmann. The act’s concluding ensemble number, in which her dead mother, sung by Cloe SanAntonio, and the evil Dr. Miracle induce her to risk death by singing was one of the performance’s best moments. The music rose in intense waves of sound, enhanced by Dr. Miracle’s well-timed triumphant cackle, with Lewek’s voice soaring in ascending flights of melody. The role will be taken by Erika Baikoff on Saturday.

It’s no stretch at all for the opera’s four villains to be portrayed by the same singer, since the roles all require variations on the same vocal themes of the sinister and satanic.

Bald and bearded, with the unhurried manner of a man in complete control of the situation, the baritone Zachary Nelson made an imposing villain in all four roles, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dappertutto and Dr. Miracle.

His characterizations were usually subtle, communicating malice with a tilt of the head or a chuckle as he removed his pipe. He laid it on a little thick, however, as Coppélius, in Act 1, where he gave the character a weird tic that didn’t do much for the drama.

His voice carried a dark gleam, intimidating at high volume, sinister when soft.  As Dr. Miracle, somberly clad in top hat and long black coat, he brought an insinuating tone to his voice as he lowered it to persuade Antonia to risk death by resuming her singing career. The role will be handled by Mark Delavan on Saturday.

The mezzo soprano Emily Fons brought a plush voice, with shining high notes, to the role of the Muse of poetry and Hoffmann’s sidekick Niklausse.

As the doll’s inventor Spalanzani, Garrett Evers gave a vivid performance, scurrying around the stage with the wild hair and manic manner appropriate to a mad scientist.

The tenor Julius Ahn had the job of playing the various servants who help preside over Hoffmann’s doomed romances. Particularly impressive was his portrayal of the valet Frantz in the Antonia scene. In Frantz’s whiny aria about his servant life and artistic talents, he allowed a refined singing voice to show through the comic moments—the arpeggios ending in a sustained raspberry or a fall flat on his back.

Offenbach’s opera gives the orchestra, conducted by David Stern, few chances to shine on its own, but the ensemble played with a lustrous tone and lilt in the famous Barcarolle, and horns gave an immaculate and refined performance in the music leading up to the Epilogue. Throughout the opera, the orchestra provided the singers with firm support and assertiveness where called for, without ever overpowering them.

The Tales of Hoffmann will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday (with alternate cast) and 2 p.m. Sunday.

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Sat Mar 2, 2024
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