As the wind whips through the performers' hair against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline and an amphitheatre made of industrial containers, Vertical Player Repertory's production of Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann feels as romantic as the opera itself. The performances, however, don't quite live up to their surroundings.
Red Hook's Marine Terminal boasts breathtaking views and more than enough grit to sustain Hoffmann's journey from the barroom to the worlds of his three misbegotten loves and back. A wood-dominated set of boxes and a ladder lends a modern feel and makes for some arresting images. The famous time-stopping barcarole, "Belle nuit, o nuit d'amour," and the rambunctious song of the dwarf Kleinzach could be equally at home here, as could each of Hoffmann's unattainable dream women.
When our antihero meets the doll Olympia, here a futuristic automaton, she fits right into the landscape. The fragile young girl Antonia, lying supine upstage near the water, looks more vulnerable than ever. While the Venice where Hoffmann meets the courtesan Giulietta is less elaborate than it might be, the real ships passing in the night beat any cardboard cutouts, and the gondoliers who "row" through the aisles are a charming touch. Stage directors Seth Baumrin and Adrienne D. Williams bring fresh insights to the late-19th-century opera without ever trampling or distorting the text or music.
But The Tales of Hoffmann is tough to pull off in any setting, and while the company is full of capable singers, most cannot overcome the challenges. Despite its cool factor, the terminal takes partial blame. While the voices are almost always audible, they lose roundness and volume in the low-reverb environment. Breezes and air traffic swallow sound as well.
The title role calls for mammoth vocal powers and presence. Tenor Kevin Courtemanche certainly has the money notes, but he is often upstaged by the other singers and the chorus. As his sidekick Nicklausse, though, Hai-Ting Chinn shows off an attractive dusky mezzo-soprano and just the right kind of intrepid energy for the role and the unconventional aesthetic. Chinn is one of the main reasons to hear (not just see) this Hoffmann, as is Maeve Hoglund, whose fluid, velvety soprano and dramatic, unhinged interpretation of Antonia make for an exciting take on a potentially dippy ingĂŠnue.
Though they could use a touch of amplification, William Browning brings credible bravado to the four villains who thwart Hoffmann's affairs, and Sungji Kim sings Olympia with finesse. Giulietta sounds like a strain for Judith Barnes (also the group's artistic director), and it is clear that both the orchestra and singers have difficulty following conductor Peter Szep at times.
Supertitles, almost a given in today's opera world, can't be projected on the bare night sky, and the minute-to-minute English translation is missed. The synopsis in the program — which some audience members could be seen reading by cell-phone light — does help. But in the future, VPR may want to consider operas in English.
The idea of opera at the waterfront is intriguing, and on a calm, quiet night the right piece — maybe a Benjamin Britten chamber opera? — could be more effective here than just about anywhere else. While this particular performance was not without its flaws, VPR is definitely a company worth following.
Presented by Vertical Player Repertory
at the Red Hook Marine Terminal, 70 Hamilton Ave., Brooklyn, NYC.
Sept. 5-21. Fri. and Sun., 8 p.m.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.