Being an impresario for a local opera company can sometimes make for a more exciting life than those of the characters being portrayed onstage…
In a recent production of The Tales of Hoffman by the Independent Opera Company, it was discovered at a late date that Hoffman himself would be unavailable for the last scheduled performance. No, he had not found another incarnation of his beloved muse and run off with her. He was actually scheduled to fly out of the country for a week or two on the morning of the last performance.
Thanks to the efforts of various members of the company, a tenor was found and contacted on the other side of the country, who was familiar with the role and willing to fly in for a few days to rework it and perform with IOC, rescuing the closing night performance. Kevin Courtemanche arrived in LA on April 10th and rehearsed daily with the cast until the 13th, when the company carried off a triumphantly successful show for closing night.
Mr. Courtemanche sang with a ringing, confident tenor, a seasoned performer at ease in the role of Hoffman. His high notes were generous, full and satisfying; his characterizations of Hoffman were well-developed and personable; and his acting was equal to his singing, playing off each member of the ensemble as he created an amiable protagonist who quickly won the sympathy of the audience and led the cast through his tales of love and betrayal.
Patrick Blackwell shone in the villainous roles of Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto and Dr. Miracle. His huge, commanding bass-baritone reverberated off the walls of the small sanctuary, providing a cynical and malevolent undertone for each act and pulling the audience into the drama from the first scene, as he manipulated characters through their fears and weaknesses. His diabolical chuckle echoed through the house, personifying his characters’ scheming natures.
Tamora Pellikka, as Nicklausse, brightened the stage and interceded for Hoffman at critical moments with her rich, creamy mezzo and an engaging, witty stage personality. Her transformation at the conclusion of the opera, from a saucy young man into a beautiful and elegant Muse, was quite remarkable and worth the wait. Joseph von Buhler sang the parts of Andrés, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio, providing a terrifically funny comedic foil for the ensemble (especially in his deaf act as Frantz), and adding his lovely tenor to an already impressive array of voices.
Hoffman’s beloved was portrayed by a different woman in each act: Olympia was charmingly sung by Katherine LaPorta Jesensky, with spectactular coloratura and customized fioritura which significantly extended the already extraordinarily high range of the aria; Cynthia Leigh gave a smoky performance as Giulietta with soaring high notes and a super-sexy gown, coming to life with passion and glittering eyes to seduce Hoffman out of his reflection; and Christa Stevens delivered a silky sound for Antonia, smooth and well-supported, intense but never shrill, rich, full and very musical, a pleasure to hear.
Christopher Jones sang the part of Hermann with an open, strong bass that filled the room and was easy to understand. David Connors gave an excellent portrayal of Spalanzani with his clear, well-projected voice and his nervously obsessive, “mad-scientist” behaviors. Stefan Miller sang a robust Hermann, one of the students in the tavern at the start of the show, while Joshua Johnson’s lyric tenor with its fresh, youthful energy was delightful in the role of another student, Nathanaël. Alexandra Borboa gave a strong performance as Antonia’s mother, her warm, mellow mezzo rising with dramatic intensity in the trio with Antonia and Dr. Miracle.
Now…let me take you back to the opening night of this show, with a different cast of principals. It is one of the miracles of performance art that the same music, lyrics and staging can be delivered by separate casts with their own unique interpretations and shadings, resulting in surprising differences in final performance. On opening night, James Salazar sang Hoffman as a somewhat befuddled drunk, looking back on his life and loves for the entertainment of his drinking buddies. He carried off the role beautifully, switching his looks and acting to portray younger versions of himself as he fell in love with each of his paramours. His heroic tenor soared through high and low notes without any impediment, never tiring, thrilling to hear, in command of the music.
His first love, Olympia, was portrayed by Brooke deRosa, who was completely transformed by her costume and physical bearing into a mechanical doll. Her coloratura was spot-on with beautiful timbre and accurate pitches, especially in the famous Doll Song, Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille, accompanied by well-practiced mechanical gestures that made her come across as truly not-human. When ‘Olympia’ began dancing with Hoffman, her movements remained rigid and metronomical as she gradually spun out of control, finally throwing Hoffman to the ground. Great work, and a high point of the show.
As Giulietta, Alexis Wesley was the picture of sensuality in her red gown, dramatic makeup and long, thick, curly dark hair. She made short work of persuading Hoffman to yield his reflection, her full, rich soprano immensely helpful in this undertaking. And in the last of Hoffman’s lady loves, Erica Lazerow Davis’s light soprano gave us a lovely, doomed Antonia who could not stop singing, even though it meant her death, especially under the coercion of Dr. Miracle as performed by Ken Simms. Mr. Simms brought a lively intensity and predatory character to his ‘nemesis’ roles in Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto and Dr. Miracle, as well as his deep, mellifluous bass and a relaxed grace onstage. It was easy to believe he might actually be the devilish charmer his magical powers hinted at.
Julia Aks presented an outspoken and sassy Niklausse, with a clean, strong mezzo and a fresh, youthful nonchalance, very boyish throughout until the final scene when she appeared looking quite beautiful and definitely feminine as her true self, the Muse of poetry. Randy Garrou gave a solid performance as Nathanaël, playing to the audience with his clear, ringing tenor in an introductory duet with Hermann, ably sung by baritone Paul Junger. Terry Wellborn made a cameo appearance as Crespel, the father of Antonia, his familiar and secure bass-baritone ringing out in duets with Antonia, Hoffman and Dr. Miracle. Jessica Gonzales-Rodriguez rounded out the opening-night cast with her compelling mezzo as the Mother of Antonia, summoned by Dr. Miracle to exhort her daughter to sing, no matter what the cost.
The chorus kept the energy of the show moving in both performances, singing lustily with good onstage cameraderie. Despite few props and minimal costumes (with the exception of Olympia), the story of the opera came thru. Supertitles projected above the stage kept the plot turns and twists decipherable for the audience. The entire company pulled together and delivered a very entertaining performance of a well-written and complex opera.
Galina Barskaya, as artistic director and one-woman orchestra on the grand piano, poured out the piano score effortlessly (or so it seemed), never missing a beat and supporting the cast with unerring timing and style. Scott Blois was stage director with assistance from Katherine LaPorta Jesensky and Conor Karrell. Costumes were designed by Lani Bartlett; Tu Nguyen designed the program, flyer and website; Natalie Moran provided publicity and Steve Blois handled the printing.