A bittersweet story of love wasted and lost, the Jacques Offenbach opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” has many a party scene, from its carousing opening scene in a tavern, to an elegant ball to a raucous gambling den.
So it only seems fitting that “Hoffmann” closes this year’s Hawaii Opera Theatre season. The opera, which premiered Friday, is longtime HOT artistic director Henry Akina’s final production, as illness is forcing him into retirement. And with a beautiful production that featured fine performances all around and one particularly stupendous one, he gave himself and his audience a spectacular aloha.
Offenbach described his 1881 masterpiece as an “opera fantastique,” and it is a bit crazy and hard to follow, with a huge cast and lots of interchangeable parts. The story has writer, composer and jurist E.T.A. Hoffman reliving the three main romances of his life: his superficial attraction to the doll Olympia; an honest but ultimately tragic love for the mysteriously ill Antonia; and a lust-driven downfall to the courtesan Giuletta. It’s a wide-ranging role requiring everything from bravado to vulnerability, and tenor Eric Fennell delivers nicely on those counts. His main aria “The Legend of Kleinzach,” a knee-slapping tale about a dwarf, was comical, fun and somewhat cruel, in the way that alcohol-driven banter can be.
Unfortunately, Fennell’s voice, while smooth and pleasant on the ear, was overmatched by his powerful co-stars. Olivia Vote, in the “pants role” (a woman playing a young man) of Nicklausse, filled Blaisdell Concert Hall with her silvery soprano, particularly in the second-act “Violin” aria, in which Nicklausse, who is actually the alter ego of the female Muse, tries to turn Hoffmann’s attentions towards her.
Wayne Tigges, who during the course of the opera foils Hoffmann as four different villains, brought a multifaceted menace to the roles and a baritone that was Darth-Vader-like in depth and power. Out loud, he had only one evil laugh, but you felt it throughout the evening. Also excellent in a multi-character performance was Joseph Gaines, who plays four servants, some bumbling and incompetent, others wickedly sycophantic. His clear tenor cut through the orchestra life a hot knife through butter.
The stupendous performance of the evening – one that provoked gasps from the audience and a 40-second-long ovation – was delivered by coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore. Olympia’s aria “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” (“The birds in the arbor”) has become her signature, and Friday’s performance showed why. In a voice pure and penetrating, Gilmore soared above the traditional soprano scale, tossing off runs, trills and swells with impunity. Her acting also was also a tour-de-force, as she batted her eyes in sync with her trills and batted Hoffmann around with her shepherdess’ cane, all the while moving around the stage like a robot.
Anybody who admires performance singing of any kind should experience this performance – alone, it’s worth the price of admission.
Olympia’s aria comes in the first act of “Hoffmann,” and afterwards, one was left wondering what was left. There was plenty, particularly with Christine Arand in a lovely portrayal of Antonia. She’s weak in body but strong in love for Hoffmann and for music, and Arand’s warm, sweet soprano left one the feeling that she’s “the one who got away.” Eve Gigliotti is also excellent as the manipulative courtesan Giullietta in the final act.
The production itself is beautiful to behold. Projected scenery has become a mainstay in theater production and Peter Dean Beck and Adam Larsen’s designs made for a visual treat. They had some fun with it as well – when Hoffmann dons rose-colored glasses, hiding the doll Olympia’s flaws from him, the lighting took on a pinkish hue, letting the audience see through Hoffmann’s eyes.
As for the costuming, costume designer Helen Rodgers brought a wonderful authenticity to the period production. And who knew there were so many powder puff wigs in Hawaii?
Praise also must be given to the chorus, under Nola Nahulu. Visiting singers and conductors uniformly praise HOT’s chorus as singers and actors. In “Hoffmann,” five chorus members almost steal the show as the villain’s minions, scurrying about in the best tradition of criminal gangs. The men of the chorus also added a lot with their opening act appearance in a tavern, banging their beer mugs in rhythm to the music. With the opening lines “We are beer! We are wine!”, they put the audience in the mood for the party that “The Tales of Hoffmann” became.