'Hoffmann' excels at opera SummerFest

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Opera Theater's Summerfest is an opera lover's feast this year, not just for seasoned opera goers, but for "opera virgins" -- first-timers who are being courted with two-for-one offers and other special deals.

Founded by Mildred Miller Posvar in 1978, Pittsburgh's smaller opera company has survived and is flourishing with an ambitious season running through July 21: four diverse operas, all performed in English, in the convenient, centrally located 20th Century Club on Bigelow Boulevard in Oakland.

Company director Jonathan Eaton's limitless imagination made grand theater on the small theater's modest stage, with his own reworking of Offenbach's ebullient and melodious "The Tales of Hoffmann -- Retold." One of the most delightful operas in the repertory, an amalgam of the comic, the sentimental and the bizarre,

"Hoffmann" was left unfinished at the composer's death. There's no authentic version, so it is hardly disrespectful for Mr. Eaton to incorporate music by the real E.T.A. Hoffmann, a writer and composer as well as a romantic hero in the early 19th century.

Opera Theater SummerFest

  • Where:

    20th Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland.

  • "The Tales of Hoffmann -- Retold" (Offenbach) -- 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. July 21.

  • "A Little Night Music" (Sondheim) -- 7:30 p.m. Friday and July 20.

  • "Shining Brow" (Hagen) -- 7:30 p.m. Thursday and July 19.

  • "The Secret Gardener" (Mozart) -- 2:30 p.m. Sunday and July 20.

  • "Night Caps" mini-operas -- Thursday-Saturday and July 19-21 after each mainstage opera. At 9:30 p.m. July 20 and 6:30 p.m. July 21, all four short operas will be performed back-to-back.

  • Mozart in Concert -- Freya String Quartet 7:30 p.m. July 16-18.

  • Tickets:

    Start at $20 ($10 for "Nightmare Music" and "Night Caps"); 412-326-9687 or www.otsummerfest.org.

  • Mozart Camp. July 16-20; $300.

The interpolated excerpts from Hoffmann's "Undine" were pleasant enough, and the biographical premise clarified somewhat the three "tales," each a doomed romance with an impossible woman: the mechanical doll Olympia, the fatally ill Antonia, the courtesan Giulietta. Framing this was Hoffmann's latest interest, opera diva Stella, using him only to further her career, and the looming figure of the devil in various guises, thwarting the hero's success.

The entire performance tingled with raw energy, from Mr. Eaton's creation of constant onstage antics, to Brent McMunn's taut conducting. Britton Mauk's unit set was dominated by a giant profile of a female head, while Cindy Alpert's costumes updated the work to the flapper era.

Some might disagree with Mr. Eaton's theatrical choices, but one can only admire the level of musical excellence and dramatic commitment among the cast. In the title role was this year's artist-in-residence Robert Chafin, a strong tenor who has had a distinguished career. His voice was sorely taxed, however, by the heavier demands of the music, and he did not convince as a leading man.

High-lying vocal lines went badly off pitch, and a sense of strain increased as the evening progressed. In the four devil roles, baritone Dimitrie Lazich was the reverse. He has a lovely sound, a smooth technique and almost too likeable stage presence for this role, but the voice is a notch too light too convey the menace that this character must exude.

Vocal honors went to the women. Julia Engel negotiated the high-flung coloratura of the "Doll Song" with a spectacularly ornamented second verse, and looked quite ravishing in a body stocking covered with a thin veil.

Lara Lynn Cottrill's strong lyric soprano dominated the Antonia act, with outpourings of gorgeous sound and sympathetic shaping of her musical phrases. Toni Esker sang nicely, though Giulietta's music lay a bit low for her to project, while Sarah van der Ploeg did well with Stella's limited lines.

In the trouser role of Hoffmann's sidekick Nicklausse, Evgenia Chaverdova emitted big, juicy sounds, particularly effective in a lengthy solo that is usually cut. Althea Stone was appealing as the voice of Antonia's long-dead mother, who has one of the opera's best tunes. Joseph Gaines exhibited stage-savvy in four comic servant roles, as did Christopher Lucier as the mad inventor Spalanzani. Errin Brooks enacted Antonio's father with conviction; Antonio Watts impressed in the brief part of the gangster Schlemil. Special praise belongs to the excellent chorus.



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