This is a terrific production, the best I have seen by Mid Wales Opera (and I have seen quite a few).
Director Tim Hopkins has plotted an intelligent path through the various versions of Offenbach's last opera and with his designer Anthony Baker has created a thoroughly workmanlike, convincing stage vehicle that looked elegant and comfortably at home on the wide expanse of the Snape Maltings stage.
Add atmospheric lighting, designed by Robert Wallbank, an eleven-piece orchestra vividly and idiomatically conducted by Keith Darlington and a young, well-rehearsed and committed cast, and the result is a Tales of Hoffmann that punched well above its apparent weight. It proved to be a really strong evening of music theatre.
Hoffmann is a work that grapples with that old conundrum of Romanticism, life versus art. Baker's single setting consisted of a whole series of laminated handwritten panels, interspersed with the odd iconic image and a TV monitor screen, and propped against the black box set at various angles. This was a constant reminder that Hoffmann is a creative writer, struggling with his art. It was less successful at creating the specific atmosphere of Luther's tavern, in which the Prologue and Epilogue take place, but this hardly seemed to matter: and a strategically-placed cabinet with double doors upstage centre served as the window (and door) onto the outside world, through which most of the cast came and went at some point in the evening. Simple and ingenious: as effective in framing the first entry of Olympia as it was in unmasking the sinister figure of Dr Miracle as the doors closed in the 'Antonia' act.
Hopkins chose the act order of Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta and I think, increasingly, that musically this works best. The last Covent Garden production placed Giulietta and the Venice scene as Act Two, and with the scenic resources John Schlesinger could throw at it (and with three different singers in the female roles) it made for a fine spectacle. But when one soprano sings all three parts, there is a compelling logic to taking her through the musical catharsis of Antonia before returning to the flighty, much more light-hearted Giulietta figure. And this act order means that the Barcarolle, which starts the Venice scene, runs like a single thread through Offenbach's wonderfully chromatic development right through the final sextet and ensemble that finish the piece.
But all these directorial choices count for relatively little if you do not have the cast that can do justice to the work. And here Mid Wales Opera came up trumps. James Edwards, singing Hoffmann, produced some lovely tenor singing: a full-throated sound, well supported throughout and hardly a sign of strain throughout a long evening's sing. His characterisation of Hoffmann lacked only that 'darker' edge to the voice that Placido Domingo managed to produce so effectively, denoting the tortured soul at the heart of the opera, but Edwards, on this showing, is starting to fulfill the promise of his Covent Garden Young Artists Programme. I really enjoyed his assumption of the role.
The stand-out vocal performance of the evening for me however was that of Carolyn Dobbin, singing Hoffman's Muse and Nicklaus. From her slight, boyish frame onstage came a gloriously secure stream of well-directed and carefully articulated sound, her diction as precise as the centre of each note that she hit. Dobbin loses nothing in force and clarity as she moves into the lower mezzo register and as a result her portrayal of the role was outstanding: a beautiful sound at the top of her voice and a real spinto effect in the middle of her range. This was classy singing and her ovation at the end of the evening told its own story.
I do not however mean to detract from the other female star of this Hoffmann, the young New Zealander Rebecca Ryan. I heard Ryan sing Lidka in Scottish Opera's production of Smetana's The Two Widows in August and noted at the time a clean, pure voice that lacked only a characterful part with which to display it. Well, with Offenbach's three heroines (four if you include Stella) she certainly has that challenge! And Ryan met it with an impressive, well-controlled display of nicely varied singing. As Olympia, she took the coloratura pitfalls in her stride and I found myself excited by an exemplary account of that wayward aria! But it was in the following Antonia act that I really felt she blossomed, producing a stream of full, unforced tone that made me think that she will one day make a fine Mimi. Ryan articulates well and seems – on this evidence – to remain absolutely in control of the sound she produces – no waywardness or shrillness here. And this impression was only confirmed by the Giulietta act, where Ryan lightened her timbre and coped with the part (admittedly less demanding than Antonia) with ease. It was an impressive all-round performance.
I should not fail to mention Wyn Pencarreg, whose bass incarnations of evil resounded sonorously in the Maltings' generous acoustic as he gave us Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dapertutto. His was full-blooded singing, slightly at the expense of his diction at times, but his voice was dark and expressive and his onstage presence always menacing. As Franz, deaf servant to Antonia's father Crespel, Benjamin Segal made the most of his aria (why is this delightful piece so often omitted?) and sang (and danced) with confidence and élan. But it was that sort of evening – one had the feeling very early on that all the roles would be well taken and that little or nothing would go wrong. And so it proved.
See this production if you can: despite its modest means, Mid Wales Opera is taking it to Bury St Edmunds, Colchester, Canterbury, Buxton, the Isle of Wight and both sides of the Welsh borders (20 more venues until 9th November). It is the sort of show that gives opera a good name – a fine ensemble piece that does what it sets out to do extremely well. I only wish that East Anglia had given it better support – the Maltings on Saturday was barely a quarter full. Those who stayed away missed a rare treat.