Intimate, long ‘Hoffmann’ has problems at Wolf Trap Opera

If you want to learn why opera fans love opera so much, try sitting in a small space and hearing a trained opera singer in full cry: The visceral power is hard to resist. The greater Washington area offers a number of places where you can test this thesis. Chamber opera is thriving all across the country, but our region is a national leader in one niche: summer opera festivals devoted to presenting young professionals. Between the Castleton Festival and the Wolf Trap Opera, we get some of the cream of the crop.

But why do both Castleton and Wolf Trap seek repeatedly to stake out the large-scale standard operatic repertory? Castleton opened its season this year with Puccini’s “La Boheme”; on Friday night, the Wolf Trap Opera offered Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” (there are additional performances on Thursday and Saturday).

“Hoffmann” sets the bar particularly high. Experienced tenors blanch at the thought of the long, tough role of an ardent and addled poet that has you onstage singing your heart out for a good portion of a long night. (Wolf Trap’s production began at 8 and ended at 11:30, with two intermissions.)

On Friday, Nathaniel Peake hid his blanching and paced himself pretty well; his outing as Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd” a couple of weeks ago sounded a lot more forced and effort-full. Still, his Hoffmann didn’t sound easy. His voice has a lot of promise, a clarion firmness that comes out best when it’s not forced, and he has some musical sensitivity. I would have loved to see him in a role that would let him blossom, though he may have learned valuable lessons from pacing himself through this marathon.

What really suffers in this kind of endurance test is the focus on details. The evening’s standout was Catherine Martin as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s muse, who appears in the guise of a trusted (male) companion for most of the evening. Martin has a gorgeous, warm voice that you want to keep listening to (no small achievement in a role that often seems tiresome), and she’s a big talent. Wolf Trap is a place where she should be learning to avoid the occasional loss of color and focus she showed on individual notes — but that kind of detail is overlooked when your main focus is getting through a long evening.

“Hoffmann” is something of a troubled opera: Unfinished at Offenbach’s death, it’s been subject to any number of tweaks, rearrangements and additions in the 130 years since its premiere, and the very order of its three acts is a subject of debate. The poet Hoffmann, loosely based on German romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann, is in love with opera singer Stella, and tells his drinking buddies three stories (adapted from Hoffmann’s works) of three past lovers, each encapsulating one aspect of Stella’s character: Olympia, a mechanical doll; Antonia, an opera singer; and Giulietta, a courtesan.

Offenbach wanted all three roles sung by the same woman; the roles are still a showpiece for star sopranos, but Wolf Trap sensibly gave the parts to three singers. Jamie-Rose Guarrine was an imprecise and womanly Olympia; Marcy Stonikas managed to sing a credible Antonia while heavily pregnant (giving real motivation for her father’s hatred of Hoffmann); and Eve Gigliotti was a strong, impassioned Giulietta.

The roles of the villains, however, were all taken by the same singer, the impressive Craig Irvin, who sounded particularly good in “Scintille, diamant,” an aria that was interpolated into the opera after Offenbach’s death.

Israel Gursky conducted convincingly in a pit so crowded that the harpist had to sit outside it (not uncommon in this tiny theater), and set designer Michael Olich made creative use of rotating wooden boxes to get the opera’s fantastical party scenes and rowdy tavern on the tiny stage.

Dan Rigazzi, the director, also made a virtue of intimacy, in part by having the different characters in Hoffmann’s tales “played” by fellow drinkers at the pub, so the whole thing seems partly a sequence of students’ skits. And yet he, too, didn’t attend enough to details — such as Edward Mout’s relentless overacting in the roles of the three elderly servants. These small things used to make the difference between an ad­equate production and a first-rate one. There was much to like about this “Hoffmann,” but these singers, and the Wolf Trap Opera, are capable of doing even better.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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