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Hoffmann’s visions come to life

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
04/10/2012 -  & April 14, 18, 21, 27, May 3, 6, 14, 2012
Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Russell Thomas (Hoffmann), Lauren Segal (La Muse, Nicklausse), John Relyea (Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, Dapertutto), Andriana Chuchman (Olympia), Erin Wall (Antonia), Keri Alkmena (Giulietta), Ambur Braid (Stella), Steven Cole (Andrès/Cochenille, Frantz, Pitichinaccio), Gregory Dahl (Crespel, Schlémil), Valerian Ruminski (Luther), Christopher Enns (Nathanaël), Phillippe Sly (Hermann), Michael Barrett (Spalanzani), Ileana Montalbetti (La Voix de la Tombe)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (Conductor)
Lee Blakeley (Director), Roni Toren (Set Designer), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (Costume Designer), Jenny Cane (Lighting Designer), Tess Gibbs (Movement Director)

R. Thomas, K. Alkema (© Chris Hutcheson)

The Canadian Opera Company’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, in a production from Vlaamse Opera, gives the audience an energetic, sizeable show, even if a bit confusing in spots.

During the punchy prelude we see a man and woman in a small messy room having a lively quarrel - papers are thrown about and there is some shoving. She leaves, slamming the door behind her. These two people turn out to Hoffmann and Stella. Hoffmann brandishes two hand puppets (a small detail probably not clearly seen from a distance) - and two more characters pop out of corners of the room - the Muse, and then Lindorf.

Director Lee Blakeley has devised other innovations to add to an already busy narrative. At the finale, for example, while the Muse (singing down the chimney) tells Hoffmann that, in essence, his love-lorn suffering helps him create his art, the lovely Stella returns and all is well on the romantic front. Doesn’t this mean that Hoffmann's poetic output will therefore diminish? Directorial over-thinking aside, it does make a nice stage picture.

Overall, however, the direction and design succeed in visualizing the parade of fantasy the work demands. The small room disappears then reappears blown up to full-stage dimensions, with oversize furniture to match. Each ensuing mini-plot is clearly delineated, even the Venetian scene that is populated by a horde of drugged zombies. Given the Flemish source of the production, at this point I was reminded of paintings by James Ensor.

The piece also demands a big cast; 14 soloists are listed above and amazingly there is no weak link. Russell Thomas encompasses the title role admirably, with sensitive nuance in the right places. With four sopranos performing Hoffmann’s love fixations the main female role is that of the Muse/Nicklausse - Lauren Segal excels in every way. (She reminds me of a wonderful Nicklausse of years ago, Judith Forst.) And it is great to experience John Relyea, a local boy who has gone out into the big opera world and succeeded, as the four villains.

Erin Wall once again at the Four Seasons Centre displays her lush voice as the doomed Antonia. If on opening night Andriana Chuchman had a couple of off-target high notes, it only served to emphasize that Olympia is a somewhat dysfunctional automaton, especially when her hormones kick into overdrive. Keri Alkema (another young, healthy voice) has all the power needed for the big ensemble in her Giulietta act. The role of Stella has very few lines. In this production she wanders as a visual leitmotif through every scene and Ambur Braid does it well.

This is COC Music Director Johannes Debus’s first go at Les Contes d’Hoffmann. It is somewhat heavy in places (such as the big sextet with chorus in Act III) although it certainly sounds grand.

There are so many versions of this work. This one omits Dapertutto’s “Scintille diamant” and in Act III Giulietta’s dwarf lover Pitichinaccio is not killed by Hoffmann (one corpse in the act, that of Schlémil, is sufficient). Steven Cole, by the way, does terrific work as Pitichinacio and in his other three roles, especially as the doddering servant Frantz in the Antonia act.

The COC staged two productions of this work back in the 1980s. It’s great to see it again.

Michael Johnson



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