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Left to right: Andriana Chuchman as Olympia, Steven Cole as Cochenille and Michael Barrett as Spalanzani in the Canadian Opera Company production of "The Tales of Hoffmann"

The Tales of Hoffmann

  • The Canadian Opera Company
  • At The Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Tuesday

If you accept the premise that Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann ( The Tales of Hoffman) is worth the considerable financial and creative resources required to stage grand opera – that is to say, if you can metabolize more than three hours of musical sugar; if you can sit through the catalogue of male anxieties about women's power that constitutes its plot; if you love beautiful singing for its own sake – then you should probably see the Canadian Opera Company's production that opened Tuesday evening.

The production comes from the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp and is directed by Britain's Lee Blakeley; for the most part it delivers the goods, beginning with wonderful singing across the board, and Israeli Roni Toren's delightful sets, which manage to be both faithful to the period and slyly subversive. So while I can't say that the hours flew by, or that I was converted to the piece the way the COC has in the past converted me to Rossini operas through heavenly productions, the evening was not the torment I was expecting.

Act I, in which Hoffmann pursues his love of a feminine automaton, was the high point. Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman's Olympia lit up the stage, with dazzling coloratura and her witty portrayal of the automaton. Toren's fantastic conjuring of a 19th-century inventor's workshop/salon was a treat; the ensemble and pacing were terrific.

In the next act, Erin Wall gave us a beautifully nuanced performance of Antonia; Ileana Montalbetti was electrifying as her deceased mother. Lauren Segal's burnished mezzo-soprano made her Muse/Nicklausse a pleasure throughout. Bass-baritone John Relyea – yet another Canadian in the cast – was perfect as the four villains.

Russell Thomas sang the title role with a clear, strong tenor, but rarely, if ever, ventured anything softer than a mezzo-forte. His inert stage presence didn't sink the ship, but it added ballast to the ensemble.

The COC Orchestra played well – they never do otherwise – but music director Johannes Debus missed the French lightness and irony of the style. The texture was too Brahmsian; in the Prologue, the orchestra overpowered the singers. Throughout, they desperately needed a chamber-music sensibility.

Debus rushed Segal and soprano Keri Alkema (as the courtesan Giulietta) in the famous barcarolle, where the two women had seemed ready to settle into some languorous eroticism. It was unforgivable at the time, but I relented slightly in the superb finale to that Act: when the barcarolle theme returned, woven into the complex musical fabric, it was satisfying to hear it at the same tempo as the original duet, and the finale couldn't have gone slower.

Toren transposed the first half of the opening tavern scene into Hoffman's tilting bedroom, where characters popped up, not from barrels but from his bed – a nice touch, given the tendency of tavern scenes to default into operatic cliché.

In many scenes, oversized chairs and tables dwarfed the actors – a reflection of Hoffman's emotional immaturity? But every time a singer clambers onto a chair, Toren – presumably unintentionally – references comedian Lily Tomlin's "Edith Ann" character, so I suspect that the psychological symbolism will be lost on giggling North Americans of a certain age.

The work of costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel was for the most part inspired: The automaton servant Cochenille (Steven Cole) was stunningly lifelike (so to speak); some of the period dresses were gorgeous; I loved the big hair and contemporary sleaze she gave the chorus in the orgiastic Venice scenes – a sly tip of the hat to former Italian prime minister Berlusconi, perhaps? But poor Erin Wall, and Lauren Segal as the Muse, were stuck with the glorified sacks you'd expect to find in a high-school production.

The Tales of Hoffman runs selected days through May 14, with David Pomeroy taking the title role on May 3 and 8.

Special to The Globe and Mail