Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Tale of "Tales"

Although he composed a wealth of operettas, songs, ballet and chamber music, Jacques Offenbach’s current fame as a “2-hit wonder” is based on the “Can-can” from the opera Orpheus in the Underworld, and the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman, the Knoxville Opera Company’s current offering (Friday, Oct. 25 at 8:00; Sunday, Oct. 27, 2:30; both at the Tennessee Theatre). Mid-19th-century Paris was crawling with opera and ballet composers; Bizet, Delibes, Massenet, Halévy, Auber, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, etc, so to keep up with all of these composers’ accomplishments is a challenge. I will say, as a cellist, that Offenbach’s output in the area of cello duet repertoire is a vastly underrated and sadly neglected body of work. Hoffman stands out as a mature, robust anomaly; a serious opera from an era when comic opera was the order of the day. Sadly, Offenbach didn’t live to see its premier, which was completed by Ernest Guiraud and Offenbach’s 18-year-old son Auguste.

Soprano Talise Trevigne is featured in multiple roles, returning after her fine portrayal of the title role in Massenet’s Manon in 2011. Her hilarious Doll Song is a harkening back to Offenbach’s opera comique roots, and Ms Trevigne does not disappoint. Tenor Evan Bowers performs the title role, and Boris van Druff (Pirelli from last season’s Sweeney Todd; man, I still can't believe that was only last season) continues his merry pranks with a humorous falsetto aria.

My experience with the several different productions of Hoffman with which I have been involved has been enjoyable, but one particular performance can only be described as “scary as hell.” In the summer of 2005 the Des Moines Metro Opera produced Hoffman at the Simpson College home of that company. KSO violinists Edward and Mary Pulgar were also in the pit for this production.

The Blank Performing Arts Center has a proscenium stage which brings the action out in front of the orchestra, and is connected by two bridges to the main stage, similar to the Clarence Brown Theatre set-up. In this arrangement, some of the action occurs just behind the conductor.In the epilogue, a completely plastered Hoffman careens on stage and lands on a chair that is waiting for him. In this particular performance however, the chair was too close to the conductor, the floor was too slippery, the tenor was too rambunctious in his portrayal of a drunk, whatever. Hoffman slid in the chair, crashing into the wooden wall (bulkhead?) separating the orchestra pit from the proscenium stage, and the wall, weighing about 125 pounds, caved in- right on to conductor Dr. Robert Larson’s head! So while the principal cellist to my left scrambled to push the plywood wall away from the conductor, the show went on without missing a beat, although our hearts certainly did.

We at the KSO and KOC are not hoping for this kind of excitement at our Friday and Sunday productions. The talented cast is providing sufficient thrills, thankyouverymuch.

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