Monday, May 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Opera Review

Treat for the eye, imagination

Seattle Times music critic


Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann," Seattle Opera. McCaw Hall, Saturday (through May 22; 206-389-7676)

One sign of a really excellent opera production is that you're not conscious of the singing and the acting as separate entities: Instead, the music and drama meld into one beautiful whole.

That's what Seattle Opera has in its new "Tales of Hoffmann," the Offenbach opera with designs by Robert Dahlstrom and staging by Chris Alexander. This dynamic duo struck gold together in last year's "Ariadne Auf Naxos"; the current show is already making opera fans use terms such as "the best ever."

Seldom has opera been such a treat for the eye. The beauty of the sets drew appreciative murmurs from the audience, particularly in the Venetian scene where gondolas glided in and out of realistic-looking waters with the church of Santa Maria della Salute in the background. The gorgeous costumes, by Marie-Theresa Cramer, offered a parade of exquisite dresses, capped by the spectacular gown of Carolyn Kahl as Stella.

And with Alexander's stage legerdemain, the gasp quotient is particularly high: spectacular effects involving fire, swirling mists, a pistol that magically "melts," window frames that mysteriously bend out of shape. Most of these effects are in the hands of bass-baritone John Relyea, who portrays all four villains of "Hoffmann" with the most commanding stage presence and vocal resonance. His characterizations, completely imagined and often eerily menacing, make him rivet the listener's attention every time he appears on the stage. His voice, terrific at both ends of the spectrum, shone particularly in "Scintille, diamant."

Vinson Cole, as the poet Hoffmann, has never sounded better than he did Saturday night. The voice, eloquent and beautifully shaped, sounds fresh and easy, reflecting the passionate despair of this man who is perpetually unlucky in love.

Helene Schneiderman's Muse was terrific: witty, compassionate, always reactive to the cast, and musically right on target.

Another scene-stealer was Harolyn Blackwell, who brought down the house with her perfect blend of coloratura fireworks and robotic acting (she plays a mechanical doll with whom Hoffmann is infatuated).

The other girlfriends of the poet were also remarkable singing actors: Marie Plette's doomed Antonia and Nancy Fabiola Herrera's brazen Antonia.

Doug Jones was a true chameleon in his four roles; Steven Cole was a hilarious Spalanzani; Arthur Woodley a hauntingly tormented Crespel; and Michael Todd Simpson and Leodigario del Rosario excellent as Hermann and Nathanaël. Ann-Katrin Naidu was spellbinding as Antonia's mother.

Dean Williamson's conducting, both steady and impassioned, was a major factor in the production's success.

The audience buzz at the intermissions was as electric as a high-voltage wire.

The finale, in which Beth Kirchhoff's excellent unseen chorus rises to its conclusion while the whole cast encircles Hoffmann and his Muse, was worthy of Cecil B. DeMille.

After the ovations, the company honored Archie Drake (who sang Luther), the 80-year-old veteran of 109 Seattle Opera roles. He deserves the congratulations of generations of music lovers.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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