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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, February 5, 2001

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Randolph Locke sings the part of Hoffmann,
with Dorothy Burns as Nicklausse.

Fantasy, reality
blurred in ‘Hoffman’

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

THE spirit of German Romantic E.T.A. Hoffmann -- the real Hoffmann -- seeped in around the edges of Hawaii Opera Theatre's new production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann," infusing the opera with a vitality and coherence rarely seen.

The opera takes place in a tavern below an opera house during a performance by Hoffmann's new love, Stella. Rather than return to the theater after intermission, the men remain drinking and listening to Hoffmann spin tales about past (real? imagined?) loves.


Bullet "Tales of Hoffmann":
Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre,
repeating at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at
Blaisdell Concert Hall.
Tickets are $25-$80.
Call 596-7858.

Each tale portrays one aspect of women, all of which describe Stella: ideal, porcelain beauty (Olympia,the doll); fickle lust (Giulietta, the courtesan); and artistic soul mate (Antonia, the singer). Each affair is dashed by a malevolent character while the Muse battles for Hoffmann's devotion.

The real Hoffmann drank heavily, but he was hardly the drunkard lost in reveries of failed love affairs that is usually portrayed. Under director Henry Akina, Hoffmann suffers less from drink than from writers' block brought on by his preoccupation with earthly love. In fact, in a clever reversal of the usual ending, it is not Hoffmann, but his fellow drinkers who end up on the floor, drunk.

Akina combined and altered different versions of the opera to highlight the Muse's struggle in getting Hoffmann to concentrate on art. Because Offenbach died before completing "The Tales of Hoffmann," leaving noticeable lacunae, that struggle lent a much-needed cohesive thread.

Akina's most inspired addition was reintroducing Hoffmann's penchant for bizarre fantasy in the form of evil's minions (previous victims?), performed by the Iona Pear Dancers, last seen in HOT's "Macbeth" production. As the audience filed into Blaisdell Concert Hall, the dancers wafted slowly, hauntingly mime-like, through the crowds, finally flowing down stairways onto the stage.

Ghostly dancers drifted through each scene, facilitating, underscoring, clarifying evil's influence. Other than their overly manic flames of hell in the Antonia act, their skilled movement contributed much to the production's beauty.

Akina's principal cast was equally strong, theatrically as well as musically. Randolph Locke's clarion lyric tenor and handsome figure suited Hoffmann well. His "Kleinzach" aria was excellent, but his stamina was even more impressive: because Hoffmann is on stage almost continuously, the role is exceptionally demanding.

Baritone Robert McFarland was riveting in each of his evil incarnations, delineating the four roles with depth and precision. His deep, robust, yet clear tone provided the right combination of malevolence and melodrama. He epitomized the villain you love to hate.

Mezzo-soprano Dorothy Byrne delivered the most impressive performance on Friday, in acting (as the Muse, Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse, and the ghost of Antonia's mother), but especially in singing. Byrne's voice, perfectly placed, ringing, and lush as velvet, was arresting every time she sang.

Lithe soprano Jackalyn Short embodied Hoffmann's four love interests perfectly. Although evidence of past strain roughened the edges, her lyric coloratura revealed a strong and supple core.

In four character roles, tenor Joseph Frank sketched the deformed Pittichinaccio particularly well, and his old servant Franz garnered laughter. Leon Williams and local singers Les Ceballos, John Mount and Quinn K. Kelsey delivered notable performances.

Much of the opera's success was due to designer Peter Dean Beck's dazzling set. It bridged the gap between fantasy and reality by extending forward into the hall with staircases, and backward into the stage area with rose-hued proscenia echoing at increasingly skewed angles: a stage within a stage within a stage.

Staging, with a few exceptions (could anyone hear the offstage cries? couldn't the chorus move less like a herd?), was generally good. On occasion, it was brilliant: the vista change as Hoffmann's last tale faded into reality, the opening tableau of the Venice act, Dr. Miracle's psychic reading of Antonia's health ...

Despite intermittent struggles with tempos, ensemble and balance, conductor Mark Flint held the performance on track and delivered moments of great beauty.

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