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August 9, 2011

Wolf Trap Opera offers vigorous, absorbing production of 'Tales of Hoffmann'

When it comes to opera in the summertime around this region, the most notable action is to be found in Northern Virginia.

For four decades, Wolf Trap Opera has been exploring a wide range of the repertoire and periodically adding to it with commissioned works, all the while showcasing some of the nation's finest young artists.

How fine? Just peruse the list of alumni scheduled to appear on an operatic greatest hits concert Aug. 24 at Wolf Trap's Filene Center to celebrate the company's 40th anniversary: Stephanie Blythe, Lawrence Brownlee, Denyce Graves, Alan Held, Eric Owens, James Valenti, to name a few. Quite a legacy.

The alumni concert, to be conducted by Stephen Lord, has something for just about everyone. There will be excerpts from operas by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Dvorak, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Delibes, Johann Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Puccini.

Meanwhile, you can catch a perennial favorite, Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann," in an ...

effective new production from Wolf Trap Opera -- final performances are Thursday and Saturday at the Barns at Wolf Trap.

Every staging of "Hoffmann" raises the question of which edition of the score to use. The "integral edition" painstakingly compiled by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck is cited as the basis for the Wolf Trap production, but, it is not, as far as I can tell, entirely faithful to that ground-breaking scholarship.

Still, even allowing for the inclusion of popular numbers inserted after Offenbach's death into the "Guilietta" act, this version struck me as basically persuasive, musically and dramatically, on Sunday afternoon. The spoken dialogue, rather than the sometimes clunky Giuraud recitatives, flowed naturally.

"Hoffmann" is a long work that requires potent singer-actors and theatrical flair. For the most part, Wolf Trap Opera delivered.

On the visual front, Michael Olich's set design, with its smoothly sliding boxes, provided just enough detail to evoke each scene. Throughout, a nocturnal mood was sustained (Robert H. Grimes devised the subtle lighting), underlining the spooky flow of the story. Mattie Ullrich's costumes added a mix of the sinister and the fanciful (some of them seemed to have been inspired by "Gangs of New York").

Director Dan Rigazzi revealed a knack for momentum and for moving the large cast neatly in and around the small stage. I wish he had devised a more menacing entrance for Dr. Miracle in Act 2, a more telling entrance for the long-awaited Stella in the epilogue. But Rigazzi drew mostly natural, detailed acting from the singers, and that counted for a lot.

Nathaniel Peake tackled the daunting title role with considerable success. If the voice was a little tight and monochromatic at the start, it warmed up in short order; the tenor sounded remarkably fresh and sturdy at the opera's close. Some of his soft singing proved especially telling along the way.

Instead of one singer (always a risky option) portraying all the loves in Hoffmann's life, this production divvies up the assignments.

Jamie-Rose Guarrine went for broke on Sunday as Olympia, the mechanical doll, venturing way into the vocal stratosphere with vivid, if somewhat edgy, results. Marcy Stonikas, even more visibly pregnant than in the company's June production of Wolf-Ferrari's "Le Donne Curiose," tended to stay with one volume and tone color, but she brought considerable fire to the role of Antonia. Eve Gigliotti sang ardently as Giulietta.

Craig Irvin, as Hoffmann's various nemeses, used his robust bass-baritone artfully. Catherine Martin was another vocal standout as the Muse/Nicklausse. The rest of the soloists and the chorus made dynamic contributions.

So did the orchestra. Despite being chamber-sized, that ensemble produced a good deal of cohesive sound and expressive depth for conductor Israel Gursky, whose knowing way with the score yielded equally satisfying doses of gentle nuance and all-out, riveting passion.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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