By JOHN DeMERS
Opera in the Heights is opening its 15th season with what has to be a drug-induced series of dark fantasies, Offenbach’s melody-rich The Tales of Hoffmann. And for the first time in eleven seasons, the show is going on without artistic director William Weibel conducting the small but highly effective orchestra.
As chairman Bill Haase explained to the packed house in Lambert Hall, which seems to look and sound better every time I attend an OH production here, the company is searching for a new artistic director. Several candidates, like Brian Runnels of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston, are taking up the baton this season. During his pre-opera remarks, I could almost sense Haase obstructing himself from references to American Idol. The feeling of audition is real, however.
Making quick work of that part, Runnels acquits himself fine. Having never heard an OH opera without Weibel on the podium – and always thinking his work, especially as a conductor at performance, had to be a company strong suit – I was really listening on opening night. I wondered if there would be false starts, a blown note here or there. To the best a non-musician’s ears could tell, there was nothing of the sort. An artistic director needs to do more than conduct, of course. He or she must help choose repertoire, help shape the orchestra by hiring and firing, set and demand a pace from an ever-changing cadre of singers. Runnels is having as good a debut with Tales of Hoffmann’s frothy-yet-passionate tunesmanship as anyone could hope for.
Another piece of the OH puzzle that keeps getting better is the overall production. Recent operas have simply seemed more complete, more satisfying, than some a few years back – which often had a feeling of perfectly fine musicians slumming it in a high-school gym. Changes in the Lambert Hall space (like the black behind the stage) and changes in the approach to set design (using the same type of suggestive minimalism so prevalent now, even with Houston Grand Opera) have liberated OH from being a second-class citizen. The stage area is still limiting, with too many steps for singers to stumble over, and they do, but the overall impact can be powerful.
The Ruby Cast (there’s also an Emerald Cast, but I didn’t get to see them) is doing a great job of bringing Offenbach’s triangle of horror stories surrounded by a frame to life, in both singing and acting terms. Elizabeth Andrews Roberts is a dazzler as all three (or four, I suppose) women that Hoffman loves. She is particularly memorable as the mechanical doll Olympia – part of the same story line that fuels other Hoffmann-based creations, such as the ballets Coppelia and, stripped of all its dark shadows, The Nutcracker. She is wonderful too as Antonia, the young woman who essentially sings herself to death.
Roberts is outfitted with two convincing singing actors in the Ruby Cast, emotive tenor John Rodger as Hoffmann and exquisite bass-baritone Benjamin LeClair as the demon who haunts all the protagonist’s efforts to win love. The latter’s tall, glaring, Mephistophelian presence makes a huge contribution to this production, and his rendition of the opera’s second-most famous set piece (after the “Barcarolle”), “Scintille, diamant,” is a showstopper. On their opening night, both male leads backed away from a few ringing high notes that have become part of Hoffmann’s live and recorded tradition, which is a shame. But as actors, they sell the story 100%.
Beyond this central trio, the opera shows off several promising performances, many by OH regulars. These include Kenneth Alumbaugh as the quirky inventor Spalanzani (channeling a bit of Christopher Lloyd from Back to the Future) and George Williams as the mechanical Cochenille and later as the very funny, mostly deaf factotum Frantz. Heather Scanio does a superb job with what Offenbach gives her, the bizarre notion that Hoffmann’s apparently male buddy Nicklausse is also his poetry’s apparently female Muse. Unless we’re considering dark, drug-induced fantasies of our own, it’s probably best if we don’t go there.
Photo by Ten Viens