Nashville Opera’s Tales of Hoffmann Dazzles and Delights
By Nathan Stone
A group of drunken students, a muse disguised as a man, and a love-torn poet walk into a bar.
Thus begins the Nashville Opera’s company premiere of Tales of Hoffmann, a fantastical story of a slightly inebriated poet named Hoffmann (Noah Stewart) who endures three lost loves before recognizing that his love is, in fact, his art.
The original, nearly four-hour long opera was scaled back to almost three hours in Artistic Director John Hoome’s skillfully crafted production that transforms a light-hearted, opéra comique into a story with depth and impressionable characters. Coupled with some of opera’s finest voices, with only minuscule shortcomings, Tales of Hoffmann delights and transports the audience to a modern-day fairy tale.
The work is separated into three distinct acts, named after Hoffmann’s three past lovers: Olympia, a mechanical doll Hoffmann mistakes for a real person, Antonia, a beautiful young woman suffering from a potentially fatal illness, and Giulietta, a glamorous Venetian courtesan. Nicklausse (Sara Crigger), Hoffmann’s artistic muse disguised as a man, is along for the ride, saving him from all his love-sick antics.
Crigger’s progression as a character and rich mezzo-soprano voice serve as a focal point of the story, all while poking fun of Hoffmann’s grief and taunting him with past songs of his long-lost lovers. Almost as if they are chums in real-life, the chemistry between both characters is notable and an important facet for the over-arching story.
While some opera companies choose to divide all three of Hoffmann’s lovers between one singer or have different singers for all three, Nashville chose another noteworthy route. By casting Antonia and Giulietta (Inna Dukach) as the same singer, this gave Olympia (Chelsea Friedlander) a stand-alone role in which Friedlander truly shines.
Similarly, the four villains named Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto were performed by the same bass-baritone (Zachary James), because they are all manifestations of evil that lurk and seemingly play a hand in failing each of Hoffmann’s love-interests.
While the division at first sounds like it would diminish the role of these lovers in relation to Hoffmann – it does quite the opposite. Olympia’s role calls for a dramatic, coloratura voice that Friedlander so skillfully shows off in one of the opera’s most famous arias "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" (“The birds in the arbor”, nicknamed "The Doll Song").
Friedlander offered a performance combining extraordinary agility, accurate intonation, and pinpoint staccatos. Despite minor weaknesses with the trills and stratospheric upper register, such shortcomings are overshadowed by her tricky role consisting of jerky automaton-inspired movements contrasting with her sprightly cadenzas. Friedlander chimed through her character’s prominent doll aria, earning well-earned laughter from the audience as she pretended to undergo a mechanical malfunction.
Set against a dreamlike “Alice in Wonderland” like backdrop, featuring mad-scientists and disembodied eyes, the first act was outlandish and an eye-catcher. A feature of Hoome’s version of Hoffmann, however, is that the fairy tale playfulness of the opera doesn’t end with Olympia.
While critics label the second act as being the weaker part of the opera, Nashville’s production seemingly breaks that mold. Dukach as Antonia absolutely dazzles the audience with her nuanced attention to dynamics which kept the drama feeling genuine rather than phony, employing gentle pianissimo high notes to convey Antonia’s mournful yearning for her mother.
Perhaps the most emotionally riveting moments of the production come from this act, where Dukach and Stewart skillfully showcase the chemistry that two well-seasoned performers can bring to the stage. Take for example "C'est une chanson d'amour" ("It's a love song"), where Dukach twirls through her swirling lyrics and Stewart transcends to a character hopelessly in love with the lady before him.
Paired with a spicy performance by James as Dr. Miracle, the act's Nemesis, and the lyrical and flexible voice of Rafael Porto as Crespel, Antonia’s father, this act was a stirring and well-produced bridge into the opera’s final scenes.
The drama in the plot only gets stronger in the third act, when Hoffmann falls for the devious Venetian
courtesan Giulietta. Once again, Dukach displays her liveliness as a performer by switching roles to a devious woman that tricks Hoffmann into thinking she loves him.
The act opens with the barcarolle "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" ("Beautiful night, oh night of love"). A dreamy song that showcases not only one of the most famous barcarolles ever written but also features the production’s heavily marketed gondolas which stroll through the production’s impressive set. Throughout, Dukach didn’t press too hard to overdo her role as a seductress, and her gestures of coyness served her well in firing up the chemistry between her and Stewart.
Zachary James, having one of the strongest voices of the production, also acted with an amazing set of hand gestures balanced by the slightly cringe-worthy bowing of a larger-than-life violin in the second act.
Nevertheless, the audience later shares in Hoffmann’s respite when Crigger’s character finally revealed she was a Muse – a goddess of artistic inspiration – and thus Hoffmann’s unwavering love. The grandiose unveiling felt gratifying and well-earned after following the growing friendship between Nicklausse and Hoffmann.
With the performers’ lively singing and commitment to their characters, Nashville Opera’s Tales of Hoffmann gleams as a prevailing fairy tale and perceptive metaphor of overcoming even the worst of heartbreaks.