Review: Les Contes des Hoffman, WA Opera Company

If the enthusiastic reception from the audience at last Tuesday night’s General Dress rehearsal for the WA Opera’s new production of Offenbach’s Les Contes des Hoffmann awas anything to go by, they are in for a sell-out season.

This colourful and exciting production comes to us courtesy of Opera Australia with direction by Stuart Maunder and design by Roger Kirk (set and costumes) and Nigel Levings (lighting).  A superb cast starring Rachelle Durkin and Rosario La Spina was ably led by Lionel Friend, supported by the hard-working WA Opera Chorus and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in fine form in the pit.

While not the deepest of operatic tales, Hoffmann does contain some beautiful music and some great scenes which have become stalwarts of French Opera.  This production sought to remind us of the excesses and decadence of Offenbach’s Paris on the 19th Century with its elaborate costumes and props, contrasting effectively with modernist sets full of movement and mirrors.  The use of a revolve served to highlight this continuous motion and was used to fine effect.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this production was mounted by WA Opera purely as a vehicle for the rising star of soprano Rachelle Durkin, amazing as she was, but that would seriously undervalue the talents of rest of the cast in this vivacious production.

Durkin, a singer with a very promising future showed just exactly why she is in cureent demand in New York.  Her voice, is beautiful and very secure and she was in stronger vocal form here than she was in La Sonnambula last year.  In my opinion her forte lies in the more coloratura moments, Olympia was the standout, her Doll Scene aria one of the most hilarious stagings of a comedy aria I have ever witnessed.  It was pure genius and showed her gifts as a comedic actress.

As Giulietta, the courtesan, what her voice lacked in voluptuousness she certainly made up for with characterisation and vocal strength. And as Antoinette and Stella she showed us more of her dramatic side, her handling of Antoinette’s death was touchingly poignant, as Stella she was the epitomy of selfish Prima Donna.  All up a complete vocal triumph.

Rosario La Spina has a golden tenor with a ringing top that he uses with great flair.  One or two nervous moments early in the piece were soon forgotten as his voice blended beautifully with both Rachelle Durkin and Catherine Carby in their respective duets.  By now La Spina has Hoffmann firmly in his reportoire and it is a role that sits comfortably with him both physically and vocally.

As both The Muse and Nicklausse, Catherine Carby was one of the vocal highlights of the evening.  She possesses a rich mezzo that is secure across all ranges and her talent for phrasing, particularly in French is notable.  I hope to hear more from her in the future, a Charlotte perhaps?  I was slightly confused by the fact that she was miked for the spoken dialogue in the Prologue, but it served to enhance the surreal, other worldly aspects of the character.  She contrasted nicely between this and the trouser role of Nicklausse, proving a beautiful foil for the reckless Hoffmann.

James Clayton performed the villain roles of Luther/Coppelius/Dapertutto/Dr Miracle with vaudevillian delight.  It was a lovely touch to have these characters portrayed with such Dick Darstardly qualities, his strong stage presence a distinct advantage.  He has a wonderful dark baritone great nice weight and volume and his work in the ensembles was strong and secure.

The smaller roles were taken very ably by Adrian McEniery, his Cochenille in Act 1 particularly brilliant, and Sarah-Janet Brittenden convincing in the brief role of Antonia’s Mother.  Andrew Foote also stepped up to the mark in the roles of Luther/Spalanzani/Crespel, showing his diversity as did Robert Hofmann as Hermann and Schlemil.

The comedic moments were balanced beautifully with the serious and the use of spoken dialogue in English worked nicely.  As always the WA Opera Chorus made an excellent ensemble, obviously enjoying themselves with with so much action, their comedic turns as dolls in the Olympia scene engaging and a lot of the time the chorus had the more elaborate costumes, particularly in the Carnivale set Giulietta scene.

The WA Opera has assembled a cast of brilliant young singers in a production that contains much wit and sparkle and captures Offenbach’s intentions perfectly.  With such high standards onstage, in the pit and behind the scenes, it’s no wonder the WA Opera has the ability to draw such great emerging artists in opera today.  Go see this excellent offering from your local Opera Company, they are on a winner with this one.

All photos courtesy of the WA Opera.