Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Spinning Tales

It has been over twenty years since Opera Theatre of St. Louis has seen fit to give us a production of Offenbach's last and possibly greatest work, The Tales of Hoffmann, and it's easy to imagine why. The challenge of finding a soprano who can handle the roles of all four of Hoffmann's love objects is substantial and even a non-realistic production like the current one still makes significant technical demands. That being the case, it's fortunate that the 2008 season opens with a Hoffmann that, despite the occasional misstep and fit of theatrical self-indulgence, is solidly entertaining and generally quite well sung.

Left uncompleted at the time of the composer's death, Hoffman is, by now, a bit of a mess. It has gone through numerous re-writes over the years, the most recent being a major critical edition by Michael Kaye and Offenbach expert Jean-Christophe Keck that takes into account hundreds of pages of previously unknown material unearthed in the 1970s and 1980s. It's this version that's used in the current production, and those who know the opera from older editions may find themselves raising the occasional eyebrow at some of the changes. Those eyebrows will be especially high during the opera's final moments when Hoffman, instead of passing out to the off-stage strains of the students' drinking song, joins the entire ensemble in a hymn of praise to the transformative power of art.

I still prefer the older, more downbeat ending, if only because it's truer to the real Hoffmann's early death from alcoholism and syphilis, but I can't deny the musical and dramatic impact of this one. If only they weren't all singing it to the ghost of Offenbach.

If you don't remember Offenbach being a character in his own opera, that's because this particular gimmick has been added by director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe, whose inventive work distinguished OTSL's Thaïs in 2003 and Beauty and the Beast in 2005. As they explain in their program note, they see this often-revised score as a labyrinth with the composer “misleading us through it all by hiding parts of his score and by playing some roles he has stolen from the singers”.

Hence a scene taken from real life and tacked on to the beginning, in which a bronze statue of Offenbach and The Muses is unveiled. As the opera proper begins the bronze figures come to life. The muse of poetry takes on the character of Hoffman's young friend Nicklausse (as the character does in previous versions of the libretto) while Offenbach takes on all of the comic servant roles and inserts himself in and between scenes in ways that are amusing at some times but annoying at others. In the opera's final moments, he becomes the center of attention, shifting the focus from Hoffman's redemption through poetry to (presumably) Offenbach's redemption of his final work.

The entire concept strikes me as imposed and unnecessary, but given the strength of the production as a whole, I'm willing to let it go.

Soprano Ailyn Pérez is impressive, to say the least, as the four objects of Hoffman's affection. The roles of the diva Stella, the singing doll Olympia, the mysteriously ill Antonia and the courtesan Giulietta are all vocally demanding in very different ways - so much so that many companies are obliged to abandon Offenbach's intention to have all the parts sung by the same actress. In taking on all four, Pérez is filling the shoes of some of some operatic giants, including Beverly Sills (whose performance opposite Norman Treigle as the villains so captivated me as a youth), Dame Joan Sutherland and Catherine Malfitano. She does so with great skill and while some of her vocal choices (especially in Olympia's coloratura passages) may offend purists, I found her performance completely persuasive.

Bass Kirk Eichelberger takes on the four villains and to my ears, at least, he sounded fine despite the fact that the roles require the extended range of a bass-baritone. His acting struck me as a bit 19th century artificial, but given that bass Jeremy Gaylon (as the various father figures) and tenor Matthew DiBattista (as the bronzed Offenbach) were mining the same vein, I suspect they may just be following Doucet's direction. DiBattista does make the comical roles very comical, however, and his Offenbach wig and makeup are a triumph of the art - credit Tom Watson for that bit of magic. Tenor Garrett Sorenson is a fine Hoffmann and mezzo Jennifer Johnson is captivating as Nicklausse and the Muse.

Stephen Lord, who also prepared the English translation, conducts the Opera Theatre orchestra with great skill. Players and singers got out of sync occasionally on opening night, but by the time you read this that will probably no longer be an issue.

From a purely theatrical perspective, the Doucet/Barbe team has loaded Hoffman up with a plethora of stage business and innovative design elements. That's both this production's greatest strength and biggest weakness, because while some of their ideas are delightful and serve the opera well, others are distracting or even annoying.

The ingenious bunraku-style mechanical creatures at Olympia's coming-out party are a good example of the former, along with visually striking costumes, such as Dapertutto's glittering black and scarlet number in the Venice sequence.

The latter include irrelevant images lifted from M.C. Escher, overdone slapstick in the Olympia scenes, Giulietta's distracting and unflattering seahorse outfit, and the sudden appearance, in the second act, of a giant puppet version of Antonia's mother manipulated by multiple Doctor Miracles. Arriving as it does at a moment of high drama, this sudden infusion of the absurd provoked stifled giggles from some of the opening night audience. Besides, seven Doctor Miracles is six too many.

That said, Opera Theatre's Tales of Hoffmann is still a generally gratifying production of an Offenbach classic, and well worth seeing. It runs in rotating repertory with the season's other three operas through June 28th at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information call 314-961-0644.

One final note: Tales of Hoffmann runs around three hours and fifteen minutes with two very short intermissions, neither of which leaves one enough time to do more than make a quick run to the appropriate washroom or hastily gulp down a glass of wine. Tacking on another five minutes to each intermission wouldn't make that much difference in overall running time and would enhance the experience of Opera Theatre's well-appointed concessions tent during these pleasant early summer evenings

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Winning West

Paula West is making her third St. Louis appearance (and her second in the Cabaret at Savor series) this week, which presents me with a bit of a problem. What can I say about her magnetic and compelling performance that I didn't say the last two times? I've already praised her ability to combine the improvisatory spirit of jazz with the fidelity to the songwriter's intent that characterizes a good cabaret performance. I've already described her act as "the best of both worlds". Where do I go from there?

Perhaps I should start by admiring the variety of material on the program. From the opening instrumental blues jam based on a tune by the late Boise-based pianist Gene Harris to the mesmerizing closing performance of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", Ms. West and company provide an impressive variety of songs culled from widely divergent genres.

There are American Songbook standards like Sammy Cahn's "Pocketful of Miracles" (from the 1961 Frank Capra film), "Something Good" (which Richard Rogers wrote for the film version of The Sound of Music) and Rogers and Hart's "Isn't It Romantic" (from 1932 film Love Me Tonight where it's sung by Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, among others, in a montage sequence). But there are also the Dylan songs, a rollicking version of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya", Jobim's stream-of-consciousness "Waters of March" - the composition of which is said to have been a form of psychotherapy for the Brazilian legend - and the earthy wit and wisdom of "The Goodbye Song", adapted from a Pearl Bailey monologue.

That last one, by the way, is one of several numbers that cast a gimlet eye on that whole Mars/Venus thing. Oscar Brown, Jr.'s "The Snake", about the folly of believing that love alone can change anyone, is another. Ms. West is no starry-eyed romantic, and her wry take on the business of "breakin' in the next man" gives a bit of a feminist slant to the evening. A distinct, personal point of view is one of the elements of a solid cabaret show so that, as they say, is a good thing.

Ms. West delivers all of this with the vocal flexibility and virtuosity that her fans have come to expect. She also does it with a minimum of "patter" - the between-songs chat that most artists use to enlighten us about the music, the performer, or both. That's unusual in cabaret, but Ms. West is content to let the music and her often-innovative approach to it speak for themselves. For her, the combination works beautifully. She connects quickly with the audience and maintains that bond right up to the end.

The combination of Ms. West and her fellow performers, The George Mesterhazy Trio, also works beautifully. I've praised Mesterhazy's impressive pianism and smart, witty arrangements before. It would seem that I'm doing it again now. His arrangement of ur-Hippie eden ahbez's "Nature Boy", for example, features seductive harmonies and a percussion line inspired by a visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul ("not Constantinople") while his high-energy version of "All the Cats Join In" - which Benny Goodman's band recorded for a Disney animated short in 1946 - includes one of his signature in-jokes. In this case, it's the bass line from another Goodman hit, Chu Berry's "Christopher Columbus". There was undoubtedly more of that sort of thing during the evening, but I'm not hip to the jive enough to pick up all of it.

Filling out the trio this time around are Cliff Schmidt on bass and Tony Reedus on drums. They're both solid performers and are clearly having the time of their lives playing off of each other and Ms. West who is, as always, careful to give members of the band plenty of opportunities to shine. Mr. Schmidt's action-packed solos drew applause throughout the evening, and Mr. Reedus demonstrated an impressive dynamic range, from the exotic caresses of "Nature Boy" to the slam-bang tang of "All the Cats Join In".

So, there we are. I managed to tell you what a great show Paula West is doing this week at Savor and I hardly plagiarized myself at all. Her show runs through Saturday, May 17th, and you can order tickets by calling Savor at 314-531-0220 or by surfing over to I'd advise doing that sooner rather than later. The 65-seat Flim-Flam Room was nearly full when we attended on Wednesday; it's a safe bet that Friday and Saturday tickets will go quickly.

Should you miss her, however, despair not. Her three CDs are available at , among other places, and you can keep up with future appearances at her web site, . And in any case, given the warm welcome the Midwest has accorded the West, I expect we'll be seeing her here again.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Voices of Spring

It was a colorful evening at Powell Hall on Thursday, May 8th, and not just because of the bright spring plumage sported by many of the women (and some of the men) in attendance. The works that made up the program were also riots of orchestral color that gave every section of the orchestra a chance to show off - which they did, to great effect.

The evening opened with that favorite of cartoons and horror movies - Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor - as arranged by one of the 20th century's great transcribers, Leopold Stokowski. Sometimes lambasted by critics for his flamboyant conducting style, "Stoky" was certainly capable of wretched excess from time to time, but I've always had a soft spot for both his performances and his arrangements. Dating from 1926 - and made famous in 1939 by its inclusion in Disney's Fantasia - the transcription is really quite a brilliant display of the capabilities of the 20th-century orchestra in general and the Philadelphia Orchestra (where Stokowski was Music Director from 1912 to 1938) in particular. The way in which melodic fragments are tossed around between instruments recalls Webern's transcription of Bach's "Ricercare No. 2" - albeit on a grander scale - and the occasional echoing of themes between sections put me in mind of the famous antiphonal brass works of Gabrielli.

Early music purists shun this sort of thing, of course, but I've always felt that a sympathetic arrangement in no way denigrates the original but rather creates a new work that's a kind of musical hybrid. Some critics dismissed Stokowski's Bach transcriptions as "Bachowski" but, in fact, that's exactly what they are: collaborations between two musical originals who just happened to have lived two centuries apart.

Peter Oundjian conducted the orchestra in an appropriately Hollywood-lavish performance of this unabashedly flashy piece. The winds sounded particularly fine and it was nice to hear from that orchestral wallflower, the celesta, even if it's only used as a garnish.

Following the Bach/Stokowski was Christopher Theofanidis' Rainbow Body, a transcendent 2000 composition that's a kind of fantasia on 12th century composer, author and mystic Hildegard von Bingen's Responsorium "Ave Maria, O auctrix vite" ("Hail Mary, o source of life") - which was itself an adaptation of an anonymous "Alma Redemptoris Mater" from two hundred years earlier. Mirrors within mirrors. Von Bingen's work radiates a celestial serenity that's difficult to define, but Theofanidis has nevertheless captures it perfectly. The theme is presented three times in this thirteen-minute piece, each time in a different swirl of orchestral color, but its first appearance is simply magical. Played simply by the strings in an arrangement that mimics the effect of reverberation in a large space, this 10th-century chant, expanded in the 12th century and filtered through the lens of the 21st, is simply one of the most beautiful things you will ever hear.

The title, according to Paul Schiavo's program notes, derives from Tibetan Buddhism and refers to "the form an enlightened person takes after escaping the cycle of reincarnation". In this sense, then, Rainbow Body is something of a contemporary version of Strauss' Death and Transfiguration, with each statement of the theme indicating the progress of the "subtle body" towards pure light and energy. Theofanidis illustrates that final transformation with an all-stops-out setting that manages to be both overwhelming and subtle at the same time.

The symphony did this modern showpiece up proud, with a performance that was received with great enthusiasm by the audience - a relatively rare response to most recent classical music. Rainbow Body clearly deserves to be made a part of the regular orchestral repertoire. Writing music that is beautiful as well as intelligent seems to be finally making a comeback, and not a moment too soon.

It was back to the familiar after intermission with that most famous of 20th century settings of medieval texts, Carl Orff's 1936 Carmina Burana. The title is taken from an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries that turned up in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Germany. As befits their "vulgar" status, the poems celebrate not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: spring, sex, food, sex, drink, gambling and sex. They also recognize something that we moderns have lost track of, to our detriment: the heavy influence of blind chance on our lives. The setting of "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" ("Fortune, Empress of the World"), which opens and closes the work, reminds us that the wheel of fortune is always turning and that none of us should get too cocky, as the universe has a tendency to dope-slap the excessively smug.

Orff envisioned this material as the basis for a choral cantata with some mimed action and "magic tableaux" and while it's usually performed strictly as a concert piece these days, the composer's theatrical intentions are evident in every note. Oundjian's reading was appropriately dramatic, with marked contrasts of both tempo and dynamics that called to mind David Amado's somewhat controversial 2003 Carmina. I loved that one and I'm equally smitten this time around. The orchestra and chorus sounded great despite the occasional intonation problem here and there, and the addition projected supertitles saved those less familiar with the work from having to constantly bury their noses in their programs. There was also fine work from the Children's Chorus, brought in from the wings to stand in front of the stage for their brief appearance in the "Court of Love" section.

Baritone soloist Lucas Meachem nicely delineated the various characters Orff created for him. His Abbot of "Cucaniensis" (which I've seen translated as Cuckoominster or Cockaigne, among other things) was especially striking, and he got all the required dramatic mileage out of the tormented, hedonistic narrator of "Estuans interius". Soprano Anna Christy was the epitome of girlish innocence flirting with budding sensuality in "Stetit puella" and "Dulcissime", and she nailed the daunting glissando that opens the latter with ease.

I was less happy with tenor Stanford Olsen's "Olim lacus colueram". The poem is a macabre little piece about a roasted swan seen from the bird's point of view. It's comedy of the dark and creepy variety, and I felt Olsen's overly broad performance (or was it Oundjian's overly broad direction?) pulled it too much towards slapstick and did a disservice to his own fine singing. Sometimes less really is more.

This concluding concert of the 2007 - 2008 season will be presented again Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, May 9th through 11th. It's a splendid evening of vivid, Technicolor wide-screen music making and a fine way to welcome the season. As they sing in the "Primo Vere" ("Early Spring") section of Carmina Burana:

Rerum tanta novitas in solemni vere et veris auctoritas iubet nos guadere
"All things are refreshed at Spring's celebration, and her authority bids us rejoice."

Call 314-534-1700 for tickets or visit the St. Louis Symphony web site at . Because in these concerts, the orchestra and chorus truly rock, dude. Seriously.