Dunster House Opera Spins Rousing 'Tales'

The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach Producer: John Cearley Music Director: Brent Ranalli Stage Director: Adriana Abdenur February 14 (continuing this weekend)

So, another Valentine's Day has passed. Thank God and good riddance, you might moan. Even if those libidinous 24 hours dedicated to Eros didn't turn your stomach, chances are that you've had your fill of chalky candy hearts and prosaic declarations of amour a la Hallmark by now. The roses are wilting to papery brown. The only chocolates left in your Whitman Sampler are those revolting ones oozing phosphorescent cream fillings...

But lest this critic sound completely dismissive of the holiday honoring a third-century martyr with a penchant for matchmaking, something actually did go sublimely right this Valentine's: the rousing production of "The Tales of Hoffmann" by the Dunster House Opera.

Some fine thespians and a refreshingly superb orchestra, coupled with the often ribald and vaudvillean tone of Jacques Offenbach's opera, provided a high caliber and rollicking fun performance. Music Director Brent Ranalli and Stage Director Adriana Abdenur, are to be commended for a first-rate production, which would make past Dunster Opera legends, such as Jefferson Packer, Brian Saccente, and Kate DeLima oh-so-proud.

This is a complicated work by an enigmatic composer who died while composing both this score, and on a more macabre note, his own Requiem. For this reason, the opera has been subject to numerous musical adjustments, scene juxtapositions, and idiosyncratic interpretations since it was first performed in 1880. The Dunster House Opera made some wise choices, sticking with the most traditional of these versions, using English spoken dialogue in place of French recitative, and abbreviating the length of the opera.

Recalling his German roots, Offenbach combines Oktoberfest-inspired scenes of tavern life and male-bonding-over-beer with the equally Teutonic theme of sensitive young men pining over that special Fraulein. (Think Goethe.) In this opera, the eponymous character Hoffmann (Jerry Shuman) dreams of not just one Fraulein, but a trinity of them who together form that elusive ideal--the perfect woman.


The poet Hoffmann is protected by his Muse, in the form of his sidekick Nicklausse (Caprice Corona). As he stumbles into the beer hall, he is cajoled into singing about the disfigured "Kleinzach" and then into recounting the stories of these past three loves, now embodied in his present love interest, the opera diva Stella (played alternately by Hilary Snow and K.T. Lawson), who will later be stolen by his enemy Lindorf (Joshua Benaim).

While Shuman sang with a rather pinched upper register and seemed to shout rather than sing--at times reminiscent of Eddie Vedder--he gave a thoughtful and well-acted performance. Corona had a lovely mid-range vibrato, along with some excellent breath control in tricky solos. However, Benaim, a splendid baritone who made another Dunster appearance as a soloist in the December "Messiah," stole the show with his gorgeous interpretation of the sinister machinations of four separate villains. He hammed it up, all the while supporting a richly textured, well-trained voice.

The first of Hoffmann's loves is an alluring Little Bo Peep-esque automaton named Olympia (Jennifer Little), the "daughter" of the wacky Dr. Spalanzani (Joel Pollack). Hoffmann tries to romance her, but as he dances with this red-cheeked robot sexpot, she spins out of control, and the protagonist becomes painfully aware of how unnatural his lust is. Little sang some breathtaking runs, imbuing her vocal acrobatics with a fine coloratura and marvelous control.

Hoffmann's second failure at love is with the delicate, aria-singing, harpsichord-playing Antonia (Sarita Cannon), the damsel with a voice as clear and melodic as that of her dead mother, whose enormous portrait looms in the family's salon. The only problem is that Antonia's gift is killing her: if she continues to sing, the strain will destroy her. Benaim fills the role of the malevolent physician Dr. Miracle who also arranged the demise of Antonia's mother, urging the daughter to sing and sing until she is prostrate, dying on the davenport, still belting out Hoffmann's and her love song. Cannon is an amazing vocalist, with beautiful phrasing and dynamics, all the more amazing because she sang her last number lying down. That's some powerful diaphragm for you.

The highlight of "The Tales of Hoffmann" was also during this scene, when the show's three strongest singers, Cannon, Benaim, and Tania Mandzy as the apparition of Antonia's mother, sang a lovely, resonant trio, accompanied by a stellar orchestral performance. Particularly noteworthy in Ranalli's orchestra were the surprisingly well-played French horns, bassoons, and harp.

The last of Hoffmann's triad of heartbreaking heroines is the conniving courtesan Giulietta (Heidi Brown). A slave to the evil Dappertutto (again played by Benaim), she tries to steal the soul of Hoffman by capturing his reflection in a mirror. She abandons Hoffmann after he engages in a bloody duel with her wealthy suitor Schlemil (James Capobianco).

After concluding his tales, the thwarted Hoffmann quips, "How strange a woman's fancy!" He is then visited by his Muse, who urges him to abandon the quixotic and capricious pursuit of women, in exchange for the majestic call of poetry, represented by her gift of a pen. (For all you Moral Reasoning students, read: Art is a higher good than Love.)

It should be mentioned that producer John Cearley and his directors daringly chose to tackle an obscure and risky sleeper of an opera in "Hoffmann"--foregoing the insurance of a familiar crowd-pleaser like "The Marriage of Figaro" or "La Boheme." Although Offenbach was referred to as the "Mozart of the Champs-Elysees" earlier in his career, "The Tales of Hoffmann" was his first real opera, departing from his jokier opera-bouffe compositions of the past.

Quick to milk the sappy humor in "Hoffmann," the directors urged the title character to belt out a booming "Stel-la!" at the end, as his beloved runs off with the enemy, much to the delight of the laughing audience. Who knows what's next? Maybe a posthumous Tennessee Williams libretto. (Hey, it worked for Marge Simpson!)