Yes, this is late; the opera closed May 17, but this production by the Seattle Opera was too important to omit. And not just because it was a beautifully mounted production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman; as the closing production of Seattle’s Opera’s 50th season, the opera was a glorious tribute to that history, and an appropriate ending for a golden anniversary year.
But the finale of most note is that this opera marks the final one of Speight Jenkins’ career. The General Director is retiring at the end of this season, after31 years, and he wanted to end on a glorius note.
This production actually is strong enough to stand up to all this symbolic weight, providentially so, since Tales of Hoffman is also a legacy piece for Jacques Offenbach. The opera is his only serious opera, and he died before finishing it.
By now, Seattle opera has an established reputation as a major opera company, thanks to Jenkins, and the entire company, on and offstage, wanted to give their best, and they did.
Everything about this production is first-rate and it all works. Veteran set designer Robert Dahlstrom’s sets go from brilliantly functional to minimal to (at the opening of the third act, in Venice) breathtakingly beautiful. Maria-Therese Cramer’s costumes, the ones used in 2005 (as I recall) were clever, appropriate and witty (when needed), and Canadian conductor Yves Abel gives the orchestra crispness and brightness. Especially fun was Olympia’s yellow dress, looking like a grass skirt gone wild. We were also amazed at the brilliancy of the bar in the frame story, opening up and showing us the back of the bar, then, somehow, we’re onstage, looking behind the scenes, through the curtains and at the opera house beyond.
The peformances are likewise impeccable, but special attention must be paid to the challenges facing the cast. Two men sing multiple roles, Keith Jameson and Nicolas Cavalier. All are distinctively different but the singers mount them with ease, and it’s easy to forget that the same singer is performing those different parts.
Even more impressive, though, are Norah Ansellem and Leah Partridge. They perform as the object of Hoffman’s affections in all four stories: the opera singer Stella (interestingly a silent part); Olympia, the mechanical doll; the pure, frail Antonia; and Guiletta, the Venetian courtesan. In many other productions, all these roles are sung by different singers, since the parts are written for different voices. But here, Ansellem and Partridge, on their respective nights, bravely tackle the roles, and succeed. (In all fairness, we only saw Ansellem’s performance, but reliable reports praise Partridge quite highly as well). The physical demands are equally challenging challenging, especially Olympia, and, again, both were up to the task. They have much to be proud of.
Our production also featured tenor William Burden as Hoffman, who sang brightly and acted convincingly in the various stages of love he goes through. Russell Thomas also garnered praise for his performances on his nights.
Mezzo Soprano Kate Lindsey sort of had a dual role, too. She was actually Hoffman’s Muse, who steered him through his rocky, doomed love affairs, and also appeared incognito as his sidekick Nicklausse. She delivered wonderfully in an unflashy part until the second act where, suddenly, she was given a soaring, beautiful aria, totally captivating in its skill and technical demand. Lindsey earned a well-deserved ovation.
Jenkins’ influence is not completely gone. He’s planned out the 2014/15 season, so successor Aidan Lang has some time before he shows his stuff. Jenkins leaves a world-class opera company as his legacy, so Lang has big shoes to fill, and high expectations to meet. But Jenkins has a way of bringing out the best in his casts and crews. Lang’s challenge is no more difficult than, say, asking a soprano to perform three totally different roles in one opera. Jenkins knew who could pull it off, so we know that Lang, too, will be up to the task.
Thank you, Speight, for all you’ve done. (And it’s great to be able to say this while you’re still alive.)