LEBANON, N.H. — “Tales of Hoffmann” is described as an opéra fantastique — both fantasy and fantastic — as composer Jacques Offenbach’s and librettist Jules Barbier created a surreal, often dramatic, and comic exploration of the loves of E.T.A. Hoffman, based on short stories by the Prussian Romantic writer. Opera North opened a brilliant, touching and entertaining production, one of its most spectacular to date, Friday at the Lebanon Opera House. The production is fully staged with orchestra, sung in the original French with English supertitles, and performed in repertory with Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” through Aug. 14. The story opens with Hoffmann getting drunk at an inn where circumstances compel him to tell three romantic tales of woe, each reflecting a different side of the woman he pursues: Olympia, a mechanical doll who comes to life for Hoffmann, represents superficiality; Antonia, the doomed singer, is youth and innocence; and the courtesan Giulietta brings lust and hopeless desire. Throughout Hoffman is pursued by the Mephistophelean Lindorf, who becomes Coppélius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto, each ensuring the unhappy writer’s failure. Attempting to save Hoffmann is his muse, disguised as his friend Nicklausse. An unusually complex and intriguing tale for opera, “Tales of Hoffmann” is set to Offenbach’s most glorious music. Rich, colorful, sensual and colorful 19thcentury excess, it’s simply beautiful. And the Opera North production thoroughly enjoyed these qualities. With sensitive and sensual conducting by Artistic Director Louis Burkot, the staging, directed by Russell Treyz was most imaginative, both comic and dramatic, against beautifully atmospheric sets by French scenic designer Audrey Vuong, brilliantly lit by John Bartenstein. Jack Maisenbach’s wonderful, over-the-top period costumes completed the fantastic picture. The cast was pretty universally excellent, vocally and theatrically. As Hoffmann, Todd Wilander employed his light and pliable tenor beautifully and was affectingly pathetic and sympathetic simultaneously. Aleksey Bogdanov nearly stole the show as Lindorf, et al, with his menacing — and one time, gloriously lyrical — bass. Mezzo-soprano Ashley Puenner, in the trouser role of Nicklausse, sang with beautiful supportive warmth, and just a touch of desperation. Three very different sopranos took on the three illusive lovers. Though a bit monochromatic, Emily Misch was brilliant and virtuosic and very funny as the doll Olympia; Amal El-Shrafi was truly operatic, as well was warmly romantic as the doomed Antonia; and Rachel Weishoff was elegantly haughty, with rich lyricism, as the cold-hearted call girl Giuletta. The remainder of the cast, including the 25-member chorus, proved consistently fine. The production also employed two virtuoso dancers, Daniella Tamasi and Alec Cohen, who added an elegant flourish at appropriate times. That and all the colorful choreography were created by Kurt Domoney. More than in many operas, the vocal lines intertwine with those of the orchestra, and the 23-piece Opera North orchestra proved amazingly sensitive. Although Burkot chose rather deliberate tempos for the famous barcarolle, “Bell nuit,” and Nicklausse’s final aria, his conducting was flexible, imaginative and compelling. And the orchestra, despite a truly difficult score, sounded great. Unusually Burkot reordered the parts of the epilogue. Instead in ending with a whimper as is traditional, it’s a true opera finale. (Purists should have no reason to be offended: Offenbach died months before it premiered was in 1881, and it has been done many ways since.) With “Tales of Hoffmann,” Opera North may be entering a new era of excellence. The marriage of fine singer-actors, elegant and imaginative staging, a fine orchestra and conducting, and Offenbach’s masterpiece, made Friday’s performance pure magic. Opera North
- Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman”: Aug. 3, 8, 10 and 12 (5 p.m.)
- Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”: Aug. 5 (5 p.m.), 9 (7:30 p.m.) 11 (2 p.m.) and 14 (7:30 p.m.)
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. (except where indicated), fully staged with orchestra, in the original languages with English supertitles, at the Lebanon Opera House, 51 N. Park St. in Lebanon, N.H. Tickets are $20-$90; call (603) 448-0400, or go online to www.operanorth.org.