Tuesday, October 16, 2012

West Bay Opera: Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann

October 12, 2012

West Bay has assembled a production packed with vocal talent – including three of the finest alumni from Opera San Jose’s residency program – and a smart, visually stunning production design. It’s a brilliant concoction, marrying the best of Silicon Valley technology with the potent imaginations of both its composer and its protagonist.

Playing the title character, tenor Christopher Bengochea is a force of nature, singing with a broad, wolfish timbre in the middle ranges, bursting into bronze tones above the staff, and attacking the stage with great athleticism. In the opening scene, Bongochea meanders from the song about the dwarf Kleinzach, taking the audience into the ether of its impassioned bridge, and just stays in that elevated state for the rest of the opera. He is the perfect singer to play the love-tormented, charismatic writer.

Another perfect match is mezzo Betany Coffland as Hoffmann’s muse-turned-companion Nicklausse. Representing the eye of the opera’s hurricane, Coffland sings with inspiring clarity and a perfect sense for phrasing. Her performance of “Vois sous l’archet frémissant,” a paean to music and creativity, is captivating.

The third OSJ alum, Rochelle Bard, takes on all three soprano roles, which may seem crazily ambitious but, in fact, fulfills Offenbach’s original concept, the three heroines that turn out to be merely facets of a fourth, the opera singer Stella. Bard shows some hesitancy with the first, the singing doll Olympia (whose canary coloratura is not Bard’s strength), but settles in by the second verse, applying playful ornamentation and some great physical comedy. Antonia, the star-crossed singer, is more in Bard’s zone, especially the duet with Hoffmann, “C’est une chanson d’amour.” But the real delights in Bard’s singing come from the small touches: a ravishing offstage cadenza, finely felt dynamic lines, and the delicate, chilling trill that accompanies Antonia’s death. She performs the third heroine, the courtesan Giuiletta, with a bit of marinara, like Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro.

Bass-baritone Robert Stafford plays the devil-as-four-characters with a delicious creepiness, not to mention a running fashion show of rock-star jackets (Abra Berman, costume designer). The ultimate was his turn as Dr. Miracle in “Pour conjurer le danger,” interviewing an empty chair (hello, Clint Eastwood) as he torments Antonia’s father (baritone Carlos Aguilar). Stafford also drove the glorious trio with Antonia and her deceased mother, sung by mezzo Michelle Rice. By the final act, he sounded a little worn-out, and frankly I don’t blame him.

West Bay assembled an impressive cast of supporting singers, notably baritone Martin Bell as the innkeeper and Schlèmil, and tenor Trey Costerisan, who provided some fun with the aging servant Frantz’s “Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre.” The chorus delivered plentiful energy – and occasionally too much, as they got ahead of the beat (a common choral calamity). José Luis Moscovich and his musicians were on the mark all night, delivering great curtains of sound from their orchestral cave (at times, Moscovich was close enough to his tenor to shake hands).

Jean-Francois Revon’s set design is sheer genius. The accordion-shaped walls of the opening-scene tavern serve as projection screens for the three tales: a collage of gearworks for Olympia, burning candles for Antonia, Italian artworks (and a gondola) for Giulietta. The great power of this is that Hoffmann is telling these tales inside those same tavern walls. There are also two eye-catching uses of video, Antonia’s dead mother coming to life inside a portrait (hello, Harry Potter) and the theft of Hoffmann’s reflection.

Another delight are the steampunk motifs in the costumes and furniture (steampunk style is based on a fusion of modern technology with 19th century culture – lots of gears and metal and colored glasses). Stage director Ragnar Conde did an excellent job of keeping all these elements in the flow of the action. The result is a vastly entertaining production that brings out the magical realism of Hoffmann’s fertile imagination (a century before that term was coined).

Through Oct. 21, Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California. $40-$75. 650/424-9999, www.WBOpera.org

Images: Tenor Christopher Bengochea, mezzo Betany Coffland as Hoffmann and his muse. Photo by Otak Jump.

Michael J. Vaughn is author of the novel Operaville, available at amazon.com

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