It had been 21 years, I was told, since Knoxville Opera last staged Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann ("The Tales of Hoffmann"). Knoxville audiences were rewarded for their patience last weekend with a season-opening production that offered up the work's intriguing premise and elegant score in a successful performance of clever and sophisticated musical theater.
That premise, drawn by librettist Jules Barbier from his play written with Michel Carré, has a psychologically dark flavor, with the real-life poet E.T.A. Hoffmann inserted fictionally into three of his own stories. The three tales are framed by a prologue and epilogue in which Hoffmann, waiting in a tavern for a hoped-for rendezvous with opera singer Stella, relates the melancholic stories of his quest for love with three women who represent different facets of his ideal: Olympia, a mechanical doll; Antonia, a dying singer; and Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan. In each story, however, Hoffmann is foiled in his quest by devil-like adversaries, each representing a different face of evil. Only afterward does he realize, spurred on by his Muse, that his true love is his art.
This production marked the third collaboration for KO musical director Brian Salesky and stage director Keturah Stickann, the two having worked together previously on KO's productions of La Traviata and Manon. Stickann has cleverly updated the visual production to 1920s Berlin, a period that lends itself perfectly to both darkness and "delicious decadence," and one that is easily accessible to modern audiences. Continuity was served by her wise and strategic use of designer Erhard Rom's set (lit by John Horner), with its towering walls of wine bottles, that transforms into a locale for each of the acts while retaining the visual reminder that it's all a tale being told in a tavern.
Standing at the head of the uniformly impressive cast was the tenor Evan Bowers, making his Knoxville Opera debut in the role of Hoffmann. Bowers created an admirable and sympathetic—albeit a bit gullible—Hoffmann in a dramatically perceptive performance that arced from prologue to epilogue. And, importantly, his vocal performance was clean and amazingly attractive throughout, with a tenor's tonal quality, but one wrapped in baritone-like strength, and offering what seemed to be a beautifully effortless high end.
Although Offenbach had intended, for obvious theatrical reasons, for Hoffmann's loves to be sung by the same soprano, each character is a different musical role. Olympia is a coloratura role, Antonia is a lyric role, and Giulietta requires a dramatic lower range—requirements that have discouraged many singers from undertaking all three. Soprano Talise Trevigne had all three voice abilities to varying degrees, all beautifully textured. Once a dancer, Trevigne's movement on stage is elegant and sleek, which is a real plus for dramatic singers. While it would be inaccurate to call it a weakness, though, Trevigne sang Olympia (specifically, the Doll Song, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille") mostly as written, without any of the attention-grabbing coloratura embellishments that the role has become known for.
Two skillful vocal and dramatic chameleons also inhabited the stage. Baritone Markus Beam was amazingly devilish in all four of the evil roles—Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto—with remarkable strength and dramatic adaptability. Tenor Boris Van Druff was a fun performer to watch as he injected the roles of Nathanaël, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio with voice effects and distinctive comic twists that brought the secondary roles to life.
Leah Kaye Serr brought a stylish persona and a powerful mezzo to the dual roles of the Muse/Nicklausse. John Forrest Ferguson, although not a singer per se, was a comically delightful treat as Olympia's inventor, Spalanzani.
In the pit, under the baton of Salesky, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra has never sounded better in supporting KO than it did last weekend.
And speaking of the KSO—the orchestra begins its 2013-14 Chamber Classics series at the Bijou Theater on Sunday with featured guest pianist David Brunell performing Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor. Brunell, for those who may never have heard him, is a professor of piano at the University of Tennessee School of Music and was my local choice in 2009 for most memorable soloist of the year for a performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1. He's a dynamic pianist who shouldn't be missed.
The afternoon concert, titled Autumn in Italy, will also contain Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1 and Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, a concert suite of 11 movements taken from the 1920s ballet score commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev. James Fellenbaum will conduct.