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Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The Tales of Hoffmann
St. Petersburg Opera Company
Review by William S. Oser | Season Schedule


John Kaneklides and
Lara Lynn McGill

Photo Courtesy St. Petersburg Opera Company
St. Petersburg Opera Company presents Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, or Les Contes d'Hoffmann, in the original French as its last opera production of the 2016-17 season. This opera is a major undertaking, what the opera world calls a big sing—lots of major roles including either three leading soprano roles or one super talented soprano who can sing them all in one night, many parts large and challenging, plus a full chorus. St. Petersburg Opera went the three soprano route and mostly did themselves very proud. I have a history in the world of opera and visited many European Opera Houses, large and small in search of talent. Performances at smaller houses were often a mixed bag, and in those days I would have been delighted to encounter a performance this good of this opera at any of them.

The Tales of Hoffmann presents serious problems because its composer died before it was ever performed and what was left behind is an ungodly mess, unproduceable without an editor's hand. Long ago there was a standard performing edition in common usage, even though it had serious artistic flaws which included recitatives by a composer (perhaps more than one) other than Offenbach, an important ensemble moved from the epilogue where Offenbach placed it to the Giulietta act, and an aria in the same act with music from another Offenbach piece—and that is just skimming the surface of editorial issues. There is also a serious disagreement as to the proper order of the Giulietta and Antonia acts. Michael Kaye published a scholarly edition circa 2003 or 2004 which is gaining acceptance for authenticity and dramatic clarity. It leaves the two questionable elements in the Giulietta act and reinstates quite a lot of music that those of us who have lived with this opera for many years are not familiar with, including two arias for Nicklausse. It uses a running order of Antonia as act two and Giulietta following, leading to a lengthy epilogue. I steadfastly believe that this running order is far less effective than reversing the two ladies. This is the edition in use for St. Petersburg Opera's production and, aside from an overlong finale for the Epilogue, I salute their choice.

The glories of this production all come from the infrastructure of St. Petersburg Opera, Maestro Mark Sforzini (why aren't other regional opera companies banging on his door?), the orchestra (38 strong), and the chorus, especially the men. Maestro Sforzini leads a crisp performance, well judged for tempos, and holds it all together without direct eye contact with his singers. The orchestra plays beautifully throughout, special mention to the horns who have a lovely solo to open the epilogue which is breathtakingly beautiful, and there are many other equally lovely solo moments. The chorus is lusty and always together.

Hoffmann is sung by John Kaneklides, singing well, with great stage presence, a fine romantic hero. The only thing he lacks is the voix mixte, a technique unique to French opera, although many very famous tenors have attempted this part without it, often to limited success. Kathleen Shelton is Nicklausse, Hoffmann's sidekick and muse. In this version the part is elevated to a starring role and she does real justice to the two less familiar arias, especially the "violin aria" in the Antonia act. A slightly gentler sound is ideal for this part, and she is more Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier than French mezzo (excluding Carmen), but with singing this exciting I find it hard to quibble.

The four villains (Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto) are played by William Roberts who brings the right physical darkness and acting chops and sings well. The ladies are Kelly Curtin as Olympia, with top notes and roulades aplenty but who just does not bring the crispness that I yearn to hear in her showcase aria ("Les Oiseaux dans la charmille"); Lara Lynn McGill as Antonia, an exciting performance that raises the temperature of the entire act; and Susan Hellman Spatafora as Giulietta, which is the least interesting of the ladies to sing, having no aria of her own. I can mention that Ms. Spatafora was outstanding as Susanna in the opera of the same name a few years ago. Lucas Levy plays servants in all three acts and makes a meal of his comic aria in the Antonia act. He brings to mind the recently deceased Nico Castel, a character tenor and language coach for the Metropolitan Opera who loved to trot this aria out at parties. Two dancing soloists, Vanessa Russo and Dominiq Luckie, play the Spirits of Beer and Wine. All the many comprimario roles are well taken.

Stage direction by Karl W. Hesser is not the strongest element of this show; I had several quibbles about specific things that are in the show or left out of it, such as not winding Olympia, the mechanical doll. Moving a large chorus in and out of the cramped stage space is a challenge not fully met. Choreography by Daryl Gray is pleasant but I would opt out of the dancing spirits, not specifically called for by librettist Jules Barbier. The set design by Stephen Mitchell is quite effective. Costume design by Wardrobe Witchery is much more effective for principals than the chorus. Wigs and makeup design by Nottingham Designs are hit and miss. Lighting design by Keith Arsenault is the strongest of the technical aspects of the production

As always, I prefer a live, flawed performance of an opera to a perfect recording or DVD. There is no way to put into words the aural excitement of unamplified singers and an orchestra.

St. Petersburg Opera continues to astound me, taking on big operas and doing very decent productions of them when much larger budgeted regional companies with stronger infrastructure tremble at the mere thought of doing some of them. I have been witness to fine performances of Carlisle Floyd's Susanna and Turandot and look forward to their annual musical theater production, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods June 30 through July 9, 2017.

St. Petersburg Opera presents The Tales of Hoffmann through June 6, 2017, at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg, FL. For more information see www.stpeteopera.org.

Cast:
Hoffmann: John Kaneklides
The Muse/Nicklausse: Kathleen Shelton
Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto: William Roberts
Andres/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio: Lucas Levy
Luther/Crespel: Hans Tashjian
Nathanael/Spalanzani: Gilad Paz
Hermann/Schlémil: John Andrew Fernandez
Olympia: Kelly Curtain
Antonia: Lara Lynn McGill
The Voice of Antonia's Mother: Tara Curtis
Giulietta: Susan Hellman Spatafora
Spirit of Beer/A Waitress/An Automaton/Barcarolle Dancer: Vanessa Russo
Spirit of Wine/A Waiter/An Automaton: Dominiq Luckie
Barcarolle Dancer: Alejandro Donawa

Conductor: Mark Sforzini


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