Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Tales of Hoffmann

(l - r) Andriana Chuchman as Olympia, Steven Cole as Cochenille and Michael Barrett as Spalanzani (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Beyond Expectations
COC delivers a minor miracle
by Axel Van Chee

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a whale of a tale in both its fancifulness and length, and when haplessly done, can be a tediously exhausting evening. With a large cast, most opera houses would also consider themselves lucky to have only two or three stars to carry the burden of this hafty show. With that said, what the Canadian Opera Company has on their hands is nothing short of a minor miracle with its beautiful stage sets and costumes, lush and nuanced playing from the orchestra, and brilliant, brilliant singing from a superb ensemble cast, half of whom are making their COC debuts.

None of the minor characters are throwaways and are all done beyond expectations.

Singing the protagonist, Russell Thomas is a radiant Hoffmann with effortless tops and polished phrasings. It is hard to imagine that this is actually his role debut as well. The long delayed and much anticipated house debut of bass-baritone John Relyea is well worth the wait. Having seen his performances while he was an apprentice at San Francisco Opera’s Merola program more than fifteen years ago, he has grown tremendously both in his stage presence and vocal prowess.

The four heroines are also wonderfully interpreted by four fantastic sopranos: Andriana Churchman’s hilarious and somewhat overly spastic Olympia; Erin Wall’s restrained and glowing Antonia; Keri Alkema’s seductive and commanding Giulietta; and Amber Braid’s all too short Stella. It’s not hard to imagine why Hoffmann is in love with each of them. And then there is Lauren Segal’s incandescent Nicklausse. Her dark velvet tone has just enough gleam on the top to cut through the dark cavernous hall like a beam of light. None of the minor characters are throwaways and are all done beyond expectations.

Director Lee Blakeley’s whimsical vision is set in motion in a quasi-traditional set with Alice in Wonderland furniture handsomely designed by Roni Toren. The French sublime tableau in Act II was particularly stunning. And continuing his success, conductor Johannes Debus paces the entire opera with an even and an assured hand. The only minor glitch are the spotlights, which has a hard time following the movements of the singers, making a rather patchy job of it all. Also a giant mirror as a set piece facing the audience is always a tricky business as it tends to blind half of the house. 

Tales of Hoffman runs to May 14

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