To welcome spring, newoutpost ventured west for the opening night performance of Nashville Opera’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann on Thursday, April 4th. Despite being one of the biggest musical capitals in the United States, opera lags behind the more obvious musical genres in Nashville, and part of the company’s donation drive outlines becoming a medium tier regional outfit by 2020 as a prime goal in its printed literature. Though small, the company can most certainly surprise us from time to time, and recently staged a production of Puccini’s Tosca for rising star soprano Jennifer Rowley. Your friends at newoutpost attended a more than valid performance of Verdi’s Otello (not an easy piece to pull off by any standard) which featured Mary Dunleavy as Desdemona and Clifton Forbis in the title role. Thus, Nashville Opera is always in our radar when planning our traveling schedule, and when it ambitiously announced a staging of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, we could not help ourselves and embarked in a short pilgrimage. In the process, we failed to prepare ourselves for the possibility that the company may have bitten off more than it could chew.
Unlike most traditional works in the operatic repertoire, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann presents any opera company with a daunting set of challenges. The work was the product of a composer who made a name for himself as an outsider, satirizing established masters to the delight of unstable bourgois second empire audiences. Hoffmann was Offenbach’s attempt at being taken seriously, an opera that would give him entry into the theater that had barred him out for his entire career, l’Opera-Comique. At its premiere, Les Contes d’Hoffmann scored a tremendous success and immortalized the composer’s name, but Offenbach died four months beforehand having only completed the opera’s piano score and the orchestration of the first act. Composer Ernest Guiraud stepped in to complete the remaining orchestration for the premiere, but here the story gets a bit murky. Works at the Comique were traditionally performed with dialogue, but recitatives were interpolated unto the original, most surely at the bequest of the company’s director Leon Carvalho, and some large chunks of music, including the Giulietta act, were not performed due to time constraints. These scenes were re-inserted, in abbreviated form, when the opera was produced in Vienna. Les Contes d’Hoffmann suffered further mutation with subsequent restagings, including the famous 1904 revival in Monte Carlo by Raoul Gunsbourg, which became the performing version for the majority of the 20th century and introduced music not penned by Offenbach (including the famous “diamond aria”). As a result, there is a number of versions of the score which allows any modern producer of the work to rummage through the hodge podge and put the pieces together in a way that most likely is not what Offenbach intended, but functions best for their purposes.
Stage Director John Hoomes, who is also the company’s CEO and Artistic Director, chooses to go with the recitative version, and more often than not follows the Guidard/Gunsbourg path. Controversially, some pages in the prologue are abbreviated, and he employs an English speaking actress (the charming Megan Murphy Chambers) in the role of the Muse. He frames the action with sets designed by Erhard Rom for Virginia Opera, and costumes by A.T. Jones & Sons, Inc, moving the real time scenes from the beer cellar in Nuremberg to a lavish art deco bar in the American roaring twenties. No explanation for this is given in the program, but the transposition does not injure the proceedings, and it arguably allows for a look that an American audience may find more endearing. All of Hoffmann’s tales are framed by this setting, with the addition of a smaller stage which allows the poet to present each story like a short play while the bar goers serve as the audience. Some innovations, such as the liberties taken with the supertitle translations, and the introduction of unnecessary sound effects may have inspired a frown or two from many as the evening progressed, but the totality of the production values is congruous with the spirit of the libretto and allowed for the action to take place in a congenial fashion as far as non-critical edition performances of the score are concerned. Scrutiny of the musical values, however, raised greater concerns.
This is not to say that the Nashville Opera Orchestra, led by the baton of conductor William Boggs, did not provide a stable musical platform for the performance to unfold. The musicians are more than competent, though they rarely achieved the delicacy and clarity needed to bring Offenbach’s score to life in an ideal way. While it is true that the orchestra was also often at odds with the efforts of the Nashville Opera Ensemble, particularly during the opera’s prologue, the concerns quickly shifted away from the orchestra and chorus and landed square on the troubling vocal state of the main principals.
Making his role debut in the difficult title role, tenor Noah Stewart makes for an extraordinarily handsome E.T.A. Hoffmann who is held back by the same vocal inconsistencies heard five years ago when he performed Gounod’s Faust in Atlanta. Back then, wooden vocalism and a lack of artistic compass were the center of our complaints. With his role debut as Hoffmann, we’re sad to report that Mr. Stewart’s appeal has further diminished. A lyric tenor with an attractive and naturally sturdy tone, his basic instrument promises a range of expression that the singer has yet to fully reveal. It does not help that audiences continue to hear him in these demanding parts (he has a very established career in Europe) where the technical pitfalls call out the weakness of his method in unflattering ways. The gap between the chest resonance and the remainder of his scale has widened, and it keeps the artist from carrying the heft and color of his instrument across his passagio. The top notes are of a completely different nature than the notes in the middle, and the lower notes are hardly featured. His forte is strained, often sketchy in pitch, and any attempt at piano singing is achieved by the removal of support. More troubling, he is visibly uncomfortable in his search for the technical devices that will help him surpass the next challenging phrase, giving his performance a palpable instability. These technical preoccupations do not allow him to ever truly “grab the voice” and utilize it for the purposes of expression, and thus leave a stamp of his own. It should then come as a shocking surprise that despite the troubling issues at hand, Mr. Stewart’s participation basically held the rocky proceedings together as the other principals had a go at their parts.
Soprano Inna Dukach, cast as Antonia, Giulietta and Stella in this production, presented a similarly troubling case. She is a young, fit and attractive artist, who comes well recommended if her resume is to be taken at full value. Her repertoire consists of the bread and butter parts for the lyric soprano fach, encompassing Mozart, Verdi and Puccini heroines. A little over a year ago she made her Metropolitan Opera debut replacing an indisposed Ermonela Jaho, as Cio Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly no less. On Thursday, she revealed a poorly managed soprano, the lower and middle voice a hollow affair, and an upper register that was small and squally. More alarming, throughout the performance she could not be trusted to sing in tune, and it was but a blessing that some of her music was either abbreviated or omitted. She was joined in the opera’s famous barcarolle by mezzo-soprano Sara Crigger as Nicklausse. Marked in the program as an emerging artist, Ms. Crigger should leave these performances with an extensive to do list, for her performance was held back by an instrument of limited charm, small proportions and a pinched top. Becoming a great singer is a mammoth task and we wish her luck.
While the above singers were not heard in their best light during the opening night performance, it must be pointed out that they still essentially possess the raw materials to, with work and discipline, make something out of their parts and thus warranted their casting. At his very entrance in the opera’s prologue, bass-baritone Zachary James, cast in the role of the four villains, placed us at odds with this statement. In fact, our reaction upon hearing his introductory lines can only be described as the feeling one gets when opening the front door and immediately realizing that someone has been inside your home. The dread only grew as Mr. James embarked in his first of many solos, and the recurring thought dominating our mind became: Who is responsible for this? Mr. James has enjoyed considerable success as a crossover artist, created the role of Lurch in The Addams Family: The Musical, and in recent years transitioned to operatic roles billing himself as a bass-baritone. Predictably, he is extraordinarily tall and very attractive, which will automatically grab the audience’s attention and force him to deliver the goods. As heard on opening night, Mr. James proved himself outrageously miscast as Councilor Lindorf, Coppelius, Doctor Miracle and Dappertutto. Pointing out the disqualifying proclivities of his instrument (that it has not one ounce of dark color throughout its range, that it cannot properly project past the orchestra, that it is not comfortably placed to handle music written for either the baritone or bass fach…) seems moot, since the voice does not have substantial operatic caliber and should not be applicable to a principal part at a reputable opera company like Nashville Opera to begin with. Time and time again, the orchestral forces did their best to supply the menacing element that his voice was wholly incapable of producing, and throughout the night the question shifted from whether the artist could survive the role, to how much damage he could do to the overall presentation. We finally threw in the towel when he delivered the celebrated “Scintille, diamant” (we were sure it would be omitted under the circumstances) in the same manner that the pop singer Janet Jackson addresses her fans on social media. Mr. James, of course, did what he could with what he has, but in case anyone out there is wondering: Movie star good looks and creepy jazz fingers do not make up for vocal endowment on the operatic stage. The damage of his involvement, as well as the artists already mentioned thus far, was impossible to ignore as they joined forces in the septet “Helas, mon coeur s’egare encore”, where all too often cheekbones seemed to be the only thing cutting through the orchestral fabric.
The many gaps left open by the main principals provided opportunities for the rest of the cast to assert themselves, and several artists capitalized on the chance. Chief among them was soprano Chelsea Friedlander as Olympia. While more comprehensive productions of the opera will search high and low for one soprano to essay all four heroines, (they were all written with the extraordinary Adele Isaac in mind,) it is not uncommon for companies to break up the casting. As the mechanical doll Olympia, Ms. Friedlander unveiled a forward, lively soprano that was appropriately reedy and grating. Olympia’s music is complicated, and it got the better of Ms. Friedlander’s passagework more often than not. Ms. Freidlander could have also made a strong case with the conductor for downward transpositions which would have better showcased her talents, but when compared to the rest of the cast, she unleashed a solid, steady soprano with clear intent, and moved herself to the forefront with little competition. For their part, the comprimarios were faced with a situation they are hardly ever presented with: an opportunity to outsing the principal they’re supposed to vocally set to shine. Some, like bass-baritone Rafael Porto (Luther/Crespel) and baritone Brent Hetherington (Hermann/Schlemil), took the bait and consistently outsung their betters, while tenor Darius Thomas (Nathanael/Cochenille) played nice and focused his energy on some rather overcooked stage antics.
The surprising standout of the evening, tenor John Easterlin, played the character parts of Andres, Spalanzani, Frantz and Pittichinaccio and offered the caliber of comprimario that is becoming more and more rare as companies ignore their development and increasingly give these important small parts to young artists with ambitions for principal parts. He carefully crafted his impersonations through vocal and physical means, the way a real opera singer should. A highlight of the evening was Mr. Easterlin, as Frantz, singing the silly “Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre”, a solo where he basically illustrates to the audience that, try as he may, he cannot sing. After a thoroughly hysterical screech in falsetto, he covered the middle register and easily ascended to a full, masculine high F, the type our lead tenor seemed incapable of producing all night. The feisty Offenbach of the Bouffes Parisiens would have snickered at the irony.
Nashville Opera’s 2018-19 season continues with performances of Marc Blitztein’s jazz opera “The Cradle will Rock”. For more information, please visit the company’s website at: http://www.nashvilleopera.org