Toronto City Opera’s latest show, at the Al Green Theatre, is Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. It’s a pretty good choice for TCO since, even with cuts, there’s plenty of fun stuff for the chorus to do and Jessica Derventzis’ production keeps a good chunk of them on stage pretty much throughout. The production concept is straightforward. It gets a late 19th century setting and the three acts are framed as presenting Hoffmann’s story to the group of drunken students. It’s unfussy and works.
We get our first look at three of the four principals in the Prologue. I was immediately struck by Dylan Wright as Lindorf. His striking appearance; thin, extremely tall and throughout this production in black, is matched by a very powerful, bassy bass-baritone voice. He also moved with a kind of controlled malevolence. It’s really just right. We also see our Nicklausse; mezzo Alex Hetherington. She’s very young but has a pleasant adequately powerful voice and is convincing as a young man which is, I suppose, something every young mezzo has to master. Hoffmann was sung by Ryan Harper. It’s a curious voice. It’s powerful, even stentorian, in the lower register but, yesterday at least, seemed to almost disappear in the upper register, especially in the Prologue. It did get better later and I have heard him sing much better so maybe something was amiss. His characterisation of the title character though was spot on with some fine acting. The chorus was obviously having fun with the drinking songs. I wasn’t surprised that a mixed chorus, rather than just the men, were used here but it did sound unfamiliar. Not in a bad way, but definitely different.
So, onto the three weird stories that make up Hoffmann’s account of his love Stella. The first vignette is the automaton Olympia who Hoffmann, with his special glasses, sees as human. Here we first see Nicole Dubinsky who bravely sang all three heroines. Olympia was probably her best fit. She nailed the stratospheric coloratura while lurching jerkily around the stage in platform shoes. Really rather impressive. Some good work too from Tony Bittar-Sayegh as the avaricious physicist Spalanzani.
This production takes things in the order Olympia, Giulietta, Antonia, so next up we are on to gondolas and barcarolles with more fun stuff well executed by the chorus. Dubinsky’s Giulietta was dramatically convincing. Have I mentioned yet that she’s very decorative? She is. Her Giulietta was pleasantly and efficiently sung but perhaps lacked a touch of richness and warmth. This is why it’s so hard for one soprano to sing all three roles. It’s really hard to imagine an ideal Giulietta singing Olympia’s coloratura. Chad Quigley was rather good as Schémil here while Wright nailed Scintille, diamant and Harper was well warmed up and sang a fine Amis, l’amour tendre et rêveur.
The Antonia act is well staged with the tricky off stage/on stage mother bit, sung by Zoe Clarke, starting at the back of the hall and then appearing in sort of classic ghost attire. Dubinsky sang Elle a fui, la tourterelle sweetly and then for her it’s mostly about the acting which she did very well. Wright excelled in this act as the horrible Dr. Miracle. He absolutely oozed malevolence. Austin Larusson’s Crespel was a very effective and even touching foil. I’d forgotten just how many stereotypical “TB in opera” things there are in this act; the pale cheeks with flashes of fire, the final lucid moment, the hallucinatory elements towards the end and so on. The Epilogue wrapped everything up effectively.
Ivan Jovanovic provided suitably orchestral piano accompaniment throughout while Jennifer Tung conducted efficiently and deserves credit for training the chorus so well. It was a tight, well co-ordinated and very enjoyable show coming in at around two and three quarter hours.
This is, I think, the third show since TCO escaped from the Bickford Centre and all three have been ambitious and well executed. It’s all quite bold for a semi-pro company and one wonders what’s next. The evolution of indie opera companies is unpredictable in the extreme. What we do know is that the next show is Cavalleria Rusticana in May which will play at the Fleck Dance Theatre which is around twice the size of the current venue.
There’s one more chance to see Tales of Hoffmann today at 3pm. Christopher Miller will replace Ryan Harper in the title role otherwise the cast is the same.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.