After 20 years, which is about the right interval, Indianapolis Opera ended this season with its second production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, a work at least entertaining and tuneful, if not terribly edifying. But then its principal singers and the IO chorus have a most convoluted plot to work with.
First off, Hoffmann — our “hero” (referring to poet E.T.A. Hoffmann) — sung by tenor Gran Wilson, starts and ends the opera getting drunk in a tavern. What happens in between is labyrinthian, a bit preposterous — and too difficult to dissect. Each of the three acts is a tale, told by Hoffmann to his tavern cohorts, about himself and his loves. They involve his nemesis, the Devil, in four incarnations, all sung excellently by bass-baritone Arthur Woodley.
In Act 1 we find Hoffmann in an inventor’s house with his beautiful daughter Olympia, who turns out to be a mechanical doll that the inventor, Spalanzani, fashioned. She was sung by an IO newcomer, Rachele Gilmore, a startling find indeed, for she possesses the purest coloratura voice I’ve ever heard grace the Clowes stage. Skipping effortlessly into the highest reaches of the vocal compass, she became the evening’s enchantment.
Act 2 finds us in a Venetian palace with Giulietta as Hoffmann’s love interest. What sets this act apart is the composer’s world famous “Barcarolle,” the tune most identifiable with Offenbach and used at the beginning and end of the act. This time Giulietta, sung by Jane Dutton, escapes on a canal with Dappertutto the magician, aka the Devil. Hoffmann loses once more.
Antonia the singer is Hoffmann’s object in Act 3. Sung well by Laura Z. Pedersen, Antonia is frail to the point of risking her life by continuing to sing. But she joins Hoffmann in a duet, she dies and Hoffmann is crestfallen. Douglas Perry sings the servant Frantz who commands the stage effectively in an extended, well-done comic role.
The opera is filled with many short set pieces, which may be termed ditties — all getting applause: arias, duets, ensembles and a liberal use of the IO chorus, the latter especially effective. Aside from those I noted above, the solo singing was unexceptional for IO, with many of the voices excessively opulent or unevenly centered.
The set, designed by Peter Dean Beck, was the same basic structure throughout: two 90 degree archways, with furniture and wall decor modified to fit each act. Joshua Major’s stage direction went smoothly, moving the principals and the choristers in and out with ease and dispatch. IO artistic director and conductor James Caraher led the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra with his usual aplomb.