It’s the end of an era — and a pretty spectacular ending, at that.
Seattle Opera’s presentation of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” which opened this past weekend, brings to a close the stellar three-decade run of retiring general director Speight Jenkins. He’s certainly going out on a high note: this “Hoffmann” features some of Jenkins’ great discoveries among the cast and the production team, all working together to provide an inventive, accomplished, high-octane show that provides a consistent jolt of artistic energy.
Notoriously difficult to stage convincingly, the three acts of “Hoffmann” each take place in a different milieu, but somehow these vignettes have to hang together in a cohesive story. This production, a remount of the company’s landmark 2005 “Hoffmann,” was created by the dynamite team of stage director Chris Alexander and set designer Robert Dahlstrom, both masters of their craft. The 2014 “Hoffmann” is more logically unified than the earlier show, partly because Hoffmann’s three inamoratas are all sung by the same soprano in both casts (Norah Amsellem and Leah Partridge). When you have singers who can do this, the show’s concept finally makes sense: all three of Hoffmann’s loves are indeed the same woman, as the libretto says.
The principal singers are new to this remount, and they’re all excellent. In the opening-night cast that sang Saturday, the all-American tenor William Burden has somehow transformed himself into an ultra-French singer; he has lightened the voice and produced the caressing timbre and all hallmarks of the traditional French operatic style. He’s an appealing and effective actor, no easy task when one is required to be both cynical and credulous, amorous and furious.
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As his muse Nicklausse, the beautiful Kate Lindsey nearly walked away with the show (she sings the role in both casts). A natural actress even in male disguise, she showed great vocal agility and range, with a voice that has strength and flexibility at both ends. Lindsey is an adroit comedian, but she also provides the show’s center of gravity, and she does it extremely well.
Amsellem, attired in spectacular gowns (by Marie-Therese Cramer), had some of Saturday evening’s biggest challenges: three very different roles, from the mechanical robot Olympia to the fatally ill young singer Antonia and the amoral, worldly Giulietta. Amsellem has appeared several times in Seattle, but this is her most impressive work: highflying coloratura agility in the first role, warmth and fragility of tone in the second, an edgier and more blasé quality in the third. It was a fine trio of performances.
So was the quadruple-threat of Nicholas Cavallier’s four villains, each strongly sung with its own particular brand of menace. He dominated his scenes with a genuinely scary authority, aided by an arsenal of special effects — able to “wilt” a pistol, summon explosions out of the air, and magically fill a room with swirling vapor.
The supporting cast was particularly well chosen, most notably the Crespel of Arthur Woodley, Tichina Vaughn as Antonia’s mother, Steven Cole’s Spalanzani, and Keith Jameson in a quartet of roles. Eric Neuville, Stephen Fish, Jonathan Silvia and Misha Myznikov also made significant contributions. Chorusmaster John Keene’s singers were vitally engaged in the action and vocally excellent.
Conductor Yves Abel and the orchestra coped admirably and expeditiously with Offenbach’s score, which ranges from frothy operetta to grand opera in style. Only rarely did the tempo of the chorus and the orchestra diverge. Robert Wierzel’s creative lighting was a major factor in the production’s visual success, as were the adroit choreography by Mark Haim and the often-witty English captions by Jonathan Dean.
Sunday’s alternate cast presented three new singers, all of them important voices. Leah Partridge (as the “three beloveds”) provided an attractive soprano and convincing acting, though she would probably get better results by lightening that big voice a little in Olympia’s florid coloratura passages. Russell Thomas displayed a mighty tenor as Hoffmann; this is a remarkable voice, a bit heavy for this repertoire but lustrously produced. Alfred Walker was first-rate as the four villains, singing a “Scintille, diamant” of showstopping quality.
At the end of Saturday’s opening performance, the curtain calls were greeted with an enthusiastic ovation — but when Speight Jenkins stepped onto the stage, a “Twelfth Man” roar went up that practically lifted the McCaw Hall roof. To mark his final show for the opera, the outgoing director is addressing some remarks (different each time) to the audiences after each performance. On Saturday night, the listeners let him know resoundingly how much they appreciated 31 years of the kind of inspiring, hands-on leadership that is unequaled anywhere in American opera.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews classical music for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org