Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Philadelphia



‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’

Opera in three acts with a prologue and epilogue by Jacques Offenbach
Libretto by Jules Barbier
Edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck
Directed by David Gately
Conducted by Christopher Macatsoris
Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia
Nov. 12-22, 2011

Clocking in at almost four hours and basically three separate one-act operas, Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” may seem outsized for the Academy of Vocal Arts’ intimate Helen Corning Warden Theater. Actually, AVA proved they were more than up to the challenge in realizing the musical scope of the latest version by Offenbach musicologist Michael Kaye. The cast of the Nov. 15 performance showed the depth of the talented pool of singers and digs in past the buffo tenor role and divas-to-die-for divertissements.

Kaye’s added scenes, clarified by recently discovered Offenbach notes, move the opera closer to the composer’s artistic intentions. Conductor Christopher Macatsoris illuminates the score with reduced instrumentation, but otherwise there is nothing scaled musically, and certainly not vocally. AVA Orchestra marks this with a pulsing tempi and details the unique expansiveness of the lyrical French line. Stage director David Gately also keeps the squirrelly plots crisply moving forward (no built-in applause beats, for instance).

Those woeful tales of the poet Hoffmann are conjured as he sulks and pines for Stella, an opera singer, in a tavern. The muse, disguised as Nicklausse, escorts him through his three tales of love lost: first, he is humiliated over loving a perfect, mechanical woman; then, smitten with a consumptive singer, who must choose between his love or her music; and finally, entranced by the courtesan who steals his soul in a mirror (don’t ask).

Maria Aleida is hilarious as Olympia, the automaton ballerina, her arms flailing around in “danger Will Robinson” fashion at Hoffmann’s touch and her singing those F-flat scales bone-chilling. Alexandra Maximova, in the brothel scenes that contain most of the new music, makes the most of the comparatively underwritten courtesan with lusty soprano trills to ensnare Hoffmann.

Chloé Moore’s warmth as Antonia, between coughs, and icy as Stella, is skilled in classic divadom. Margaret Mezzacappa‘s luminous mezzo floats in behind the portrait of Antonia’s dead mother, to great effect. Moore is very well paired by Patrick Guetti, whose powerful unfussy basso is so well folded into his performance as Antonia’s protective, hapless father.

Other than the dark dexterity of his voice, bass Scott Conner is operatic noir with each of his four villains, most drolly impressive as Le docteur Miracle, popping up in unexpected places. Also standout supporting tenors Jeffrey Halili, playing outrageous stereotypes for his comic voice tricks in the servant roles, and John Viscardi, the zany and slightly creepy dollmaker.

In the title role, William Davenport, 2011 Bel Canto Competition winner, is convincing both vocally and as an actor. Davenport has a big voice with a powerful, very warm center, even with some shakiness around the technical edges. Most important, he didn’t rely solely on his towering tenor to carry him through this very demanding role. The sketchier role of his muse, who reacts to the action, mezzo Crystal E. Williams, has soaring control, not to mention superb French diction and beautiful stage presence.

Gately and Macatsoris together have orchestrated a uniformly strong cast for this Hoffmann, a chorus with muscle in their brief appearances and breakthrough roles from Williams, Guetti and Davenport.

Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.