Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Wolf Trap

The modern operatic world is extremely
competitive and the audience, while widening due to the recent plethora of
audience-building initiatives, is still to an extent comprised of a small
portion of the general population who believes in this art form with something
akin to religious fervor. The chances of success are small, yet still, the
prospect of immortal glory, as won by Joan Sutherland or Beverly Sills, is
tantalising. This is where organisations such as Wolf Trap Opera serve an
invaluable purpose in the modern classical music world. Like vocal competitions
or alliances between fine art academies and performing institutions, it is
designed to outfit participants with the skills to succeed in the modern
operatic world.

This season, Wolf Trap closes with Offenbach’s popular opÈra
fantastique, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. At first glance, Les
Contes d’Hoffmann
may seem like an improper vehicle through which to
present student singers. Its principal roles verge on the epic, each placing a
unique set of demands on the singer, which seem to increase as the opera

The opera’s performance history is convoluted. After Offenbach
finished the opera itself, the delay required for him to rewrite and raise the
tessituras of the four heroines was quite literally fatal; he died before he
was able to orchestrate the opera. This, combined with a string of fires in
opera houses performing the piece, leaves modern organizations with a dearth of
materials and a wealth of questions. I am happy to report that despite it all,
Wolf Trap’s decision to perform Les Contes d’Hoffmann was
a risk that, on the whole, paid off.

Conductor Israel Gursky managed to bring out all facets of Offenbach’s
majestic score. His reading, which presented the opera in the tradition of
French Grand Opera from the turn of the 20th century, was not at all hindered
by the decision to use spoken dialogue instead of recitative. At times, his
choice of tempo seemed a little slow, as in the case of Councilor
Lindorf’s opening aria, as well as the ever-popular “Les Oiseaux
dans la Charmille” by Olympia. However, in each case, he seemed to
sacrifice speed in order to gain a deeper understanding, either of the
character or of the music in general.

Wolf Trap’s production is commendable for several reasons. Offenbach
had originally conceived the four heroines to be sung by a single soprano.
Since the opera’s creation, few sopranos, Sills and Sutherland among
them, have done so. Personally, I prefer each heroine to be sung by a different
soprano, as each character is so complex, both vocally and psychologically,
that it is very hard to imagine a soprano so gifted as to be able to bring out
the complexities of each character. Additionally, the decision to divide the
heroines among four sopranos allowed for more students to participate.

In this case, each heroine did a commendable job. As Olympia, coloratura
Jamie-Rose Guarrine sang with polish, yet the timbre of her voice suggested
that she was capable of doing more than just a series of vocal acrobatics.
Although, it must be said that she lacked physical presence. She lacked the
precise physical movements needed to execute the role, making this Olympia more
humanoid than automaton.

As Antonia, Marcy Stonikas sang with power and lyricism. Toward the end of
the act’s closing trio, she seemed to lose stamina, but recovered. Her
capable physical acting deserves mention because she was 37 weeks pregnant
while doing it.

Eve Gigliotti made for a noteworthy Guilietta, as she is perhaps the most
lyrical singer I’ve heard in the role. At times, her acting bordered on
the demonic. She clearly seemed to relish Hoffmann’s pain, which only
turned to sorrow after Hoffmann killed her beloved companion, Pitichinaccio.

There were several caprimarios who deserve mention. Edward Mout, as Frantz,
commanded attention, both vocally and physically. This is quite extraordinary,
as Frantz doesn’t seem to have a purpose outside of comic relief. Kenneth
Kellogg made a strong vocal case for both Crespel and SchlÈmil.

This production can also take credit for presenting a version of
Hoffmann that was true to the work’s dramatic potential, while
at the same time unearthing other previously unseen complexities. The acts
followed the order of Olympia, Antonia, then Guilietta. Some Hoffmann
scholars, like Richard Bonynge, believe in placing the Antonia act last as a
way of strengthening Hoffmann’s belief in idealized poetic love. However,
placing the courtesan last emphasizes the idea that Hoffmann’s three
relationships form a trajectory that rises and falls.

This strengthens the contrast between poetic idealism and reality, and
Nathaniel Peake brought this aspect of the leading role to life with
painstaking clarity. He also deserves credit for controlling his stamina
through this marathon role, not to mention singing a part whose performance
history includes Pl·cido Domingo and Nikolai Gedda. His strong performance made
one forget his occasional difficulties with the French language.

The crowning achievement of this production is the conception of Niklausse,
played so deftly by Catherine Martin. As Hoffmannn’s poetic muse, she was
far more than the androgynous confidant of other productions. Like Craig Irvin,
who played the four villians, she brought a mix of severity and comedy to the
role. One got the feeling that she was along for the ride waiting for Hoffmannn
to realize that the woman who was there all along was the love of his life.
Hoffmannn’s realization at the end brought a sense of closure that other
productions lack.

The works of E.T.A Hoffmannn are no stranger to classical music. Tchaikovsky
based his ballet, The Nutcracker, on Hoffmannn’s work as well.
The problems these works present depends largely on the composer’s
ability to see past the maze of lifelike automatons, demonic courtesans, and
oversized rats to the essential humanity of the story being told. Wolf Trap
Opera can congratulate itself on meeting all the demands that Les Contes
poses and presenting a fluid, dramatic conception of the
opera, which is perhaps the most human yet.

Gregory Moomjy

image_description=Jacques Offenbach [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Les contes d’Hoffmann
product_by=Click here for cast information.
product_id=Above: Jacques Offenbach [Source: Wikipedia]