This 'Tales of Hoffmann' is nicely told

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We'll never know exactly how Jacques Offenbach would have put the finishing touches on his swan song, The Tales of Hoffmann, but he'd probably be quite satisfied with the version being presented by the Baltimore Opera Company. He'd probably enjoy the performance, too.

As for the version, it's a fusion of the once-standard edition put together after Offenbach's untimely death and a longer, more intriguingly layered one fashioned from stashes of original manuscripts uncovered since the 1970s.

The company has gathered a lively cast capable of making well-aimed musical and theatrical points out of this material. Christian Badea, in a rare case of conductor/director double duty, does the same.

Badea takes a mostly straightforward, sensible and efficient approach to directing Hoffmann. Except for a heavy-handed attempt at symbolism - a robed figure of Death stalks the proceedings - Badea taps the drama and the humor in the piece to roughly equal effect.

A more seasoned director might not repeat the exact same shtick in Act 1 when the mechanical doll runs out of steam, or settle for a listless sword fight and steam-less orgy in Act 3, but Badea gets the job done. And when it comes to the music, he goes far beyond the basics.

The conductor's fleet tempos, very much in keeping with vintage French style, and an ability to build great tension into the score's climactic peaks made Saturday's opening night performance at the Lyric Opera House consistently arresting.

Some of the propulsion came at the expense of lyrical charm; some of it left singers or orchestra momentarily behind. But the net effect unleashed the considerable power and lasting freshness of Offenbach's music.

In the title role, Gerard Powers offered supple acting and a light, bright tenor (along with an interpolated high note or two). Greater variety of dynamics would have been welcome, but his was still a winning effort.

As Hoffmann's perpetual nemesis, appearing in four different guises but always achieving the same nefarious result, Alain Fondary sang with great color and spice. Even with a little roughness in the voice and some rhythmic unsteadiness, the baritone's performance had the stamp of authority.

Pierre Lefebvre, who had the other quadruple assignment, was no less authoritative. The tenor masterfully fashioned a vivid portrait out of each of the opera's great character roles.

Offenbach envisioned a single soprano as Hoffmann's multiple loves (the better to drive home the point that they are all part of the same elusive ideal), but the writing for each is so different that the assignment is usually divvied up.

Valeria Esposito did an amusing turn as Olympia, the automaton Hoffmann mistakes for the real thing. The soprano didn't provide the loud-soft contrasts that can enhance the character's show-stopping aria, but articulated coloratura with elan, adding a few extra leaps into the stratosphere for good measure. If she could put more meat on the highest tones, she could shatter glass.

Antonia Cifrone, as frail Antonia, sounded strained and rather colorless initially but grew more vibrant and telling as the action rushed toward its fatal end.

As Giulietta, the woman who steals Hoffmann's reflection, Victoria Livengood produced terrific vocal firepower and expressive nuance.

In the dual role of the Muse and Hoffmann's pal Nicklausse, Cynthia Jansen offered a rich mezzo and telling phrases. The rest of the cast proved sturdy, as did the chorus and orchestra.

Traditional scenery (Ferruccio Villagrossi) and costumes (Howard Tsvi Kaplan) provided an attractive setting for this potent retelling of Hoffmann's fantastical tales.

Opera

What: "The Tales of Hoffmann"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $37 to $132

Call: 410-727-6000 or visit www.baltimoreopera.com.

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