Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review: 'The Tales of Hoffmann'

Virginia Opera, Peter Mark conducting
Oct. 19, Landmark Theater, Richmond

Jacques Offenbach’s "The Tales of Hoffmann" drops a fleeting hint of what’s to come during its prologue, in a reference to Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" as the "opera of operas." Mozart styled his setting of the legend of Don Juan as a dramma giocoso (jocular drama) – high tragedy garnished with low comedy.

"The Tales of Hoffmann" follows a similar dramatic trajectory. Its title character, the romantic poet and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann (a real man, here portrayed fictionally), isn’t dragged off to hell; but he is damned to a lifetime of monogamy, not with a flesh-and-blood mate but with his poetic muse. How he came to this fruitful if frustrating fate is recounted in three tales of lost love and futile lust.

The Virginia Opera’s new production, concluding its run in two Richmond performances, realizes Offenbach’s remarkable cross-breeding of pathos and humor with compelling emotion, rollicking spectacle, outstanding vocalizations and canny character portrayals.

It is the most successful piece of musical theater that I’ve seen and heard from this company in years.

Manon Strauss Evrard, a French soprano lately based in Philadelphia, makes her debut with the Virginia Opera singing all four of Hoffmann’s romantic fixations, the fantasy humanoid Olympia, the consumptive songbird Antonia, the heartless courtesan Giulietta and the diva Stella. She displays awesome technical facility in the coloratura extravaganza that is Olympia and sustains that vocal standard in the subsequent roles, adding physical grace, commandingly alluring stage presence and considerable nuance in her characterizations.

(Evrard returns to the Virginia Opera in the title role of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," March 28-April 20 in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax.)

Burak Bilgili, the Turkish bass who sang Mephistophélès in the Virginia Opera’s 2005 production of Gounod’s "Faust," returns for still more devilry as the four villains of these tales: the smug lawyer Lindorf, the mad scientist Coppélius, the deadly quack Dr. Miracle and the jaded schemer Dapertutto. Bilgili is perversely blessed with classic bad-guy looks – dark, solid, scarier when he smiles than when he frowns. His voice is authoritative and embodies menace, yet also carresses a tune. (That may be the scariest of his smiles.)

Dan Snyder, the American tenor who has performed in many roles with this company, is a winning Hoffmann, with a soulful, mildly decadent look and a voice that is both robust and youthfully yearning.

Among the supporting cast, the standout is Dean Anthony, a tenor who is making a specialty of roles requiring athleticism and slapstick comic shtick. He revels in his four roles, and pulls off Spalanzani ("father" of the doll Olympia) and Pittichinaccio, Giulietta’s hunchback pet, with extra flair.

The production is directed by Lillian Groag, whose deft translation of period comedy into a modern idiom in last season’s Virginia Opera production of Handel’s "Agrippina" is matched, even exceded, here. (Her staging of "Agrippina" is now running at the New York City Opera; this "Tales of Hoffmann" surely has a future, too.)

Groag, scenic designer Erhard Rom and choreographer Jessica Page conceive "The Tales of Hoffmann" as a big, animated spectacle, liberally sprinkled with eye candy and comic asides. For all the activity, though, the director never lets the focus shift too far from the singers and the characters they bring so vividly to life.

The final performance of the production will be staged at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Landmark Theater, Main and Laurel streets. Tickets: $20-$85. Details: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster),