Not even all that money can buy will always make a first-rate "Tales of Hoffmann." We learned that last spring at the Kennedy Center with the Met's sumptuous but unevenly sung production.
The Prince George's Civic Opera's version, heard over the weekend at the community college's Queen Anne auditorium, was a different situation. All the money with which the Prince George's group can buy anything still isn't very much cash. One wondered how the opera would pull off a lengthy work that requires four separate sets and has about as many lead roles as any work short of Wagner's "Ring."
Well, the expedient economies often showed, but on the whole the production was a pleasant one.
Since they couldn't have everything on their kind of budget, the Prince George's Opera wisely put its most substantial resources into the singing. The result was not an evening of stars, nor a cascade of vocal velvet, but the performers -- most of them young, with ties to this area -- did reasonable justice to Offenbach's stirring, romantic melodies.
One of them was especially outstanding, soprano Kathie Gaus-Woollen as the fragile, doomed Antonia in the third of Hoffmann's "Tales." She conveyed the role's sweet lyricism with real tenderness, both vocally and dramatically. She can spin a soaring line with easy grace and intelligence. The voice has a vibrant femininity that especially suits the part.
In the very taxing central role of Hoffmann, things were not so consistently good for tenor Gene Tucker. He got off to a rocky start in the tavern scene. His singing was listless and his acting wooden, or worse. But things kept getting better for him as the opera advanced through the course of its prologue, three "Tales" and epilogue. When he entered in the Antonia scene his character seemed on focus for the first time, in part because at last he was wearing a costume that was credible. His voice projected better near the end also.
Bass David Beckwitt had similar projection problems with his voice in the four-character part of the four villains. His wonderful aria, while savoring his magic diamond in the Venetian act, lacked the rasping bite it requires, but on the whole his acting was good.
The other two soprano leads were also good, if not as assured as Gaus-Woollen. The part of the mechanical doll is certainly one of the tough ones in French operas; in it Sheryl Melvin was always believable and musically sound, if never spectacular like the Met's Ruth Welting.
The part of Giulietta, the Venetian courtesan, is one of opera's less thankful leading parts. The part is dramatically stereotyped, and the vocal riches are fewer than for Offenbach's other leading characters. Given that, Helga Bullock did creditably; she was a little bland but that is preferable to the feline cloyness of the Met's Isola Jones.
Conductor James Meena kept things together fairly well, though the forces he had to work with sounded pretty amateurish, with some pitch variations that sometimes seemed almost too far off the mark to be true. But it is unfair to demand that orchestra and chorus at the grass-roots opera level be superior. The most important reason why these local productions matter is that developing singers are given cracks at important roles; in that sense the Prince George's production was a success.