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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

SF Parlor Opera Expertly Navigates Angels and Devils of Sex and Love: Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2011 at 7:30 AM

Patricia Urbano and Michael Belle - SAN FRANCISCO PARLOR OPERA
  • San Francisco Parlor Opera
  • Patricia Urbano and Michael Belle

I'll announce my biases up front: I think SF Parlor Opera's productions are among the most consistently rewarding arts experiences to be had in the city, and it has been a delight to watch this homespun troupe grow and improve with its every undertaking. Last fall's triumphant Tosca (which demonstrated that going big and going home need not be mutually exclusive) left me wondering if and how the company would further evolve. Saturday night's final performance of Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann not only equaled the polish and verve of Tosca, but it also at times seemed liable to burst the very walls of the company's home studio at 1652 Hayes -- a sensation that, as it turns out, perfectly foreshadows what's on the horizon for the group.

But first, the matter at hand. If you're familiar with the "Fuck her! Fuck her brains out!" angel-versus-devil scene from Animal House, you're also acquainted with the basic premise of Hoffmann: Forces of light and forces of darkness compete for the attention of the main character as he navigates various romantic imbroglios, one of which would not be out of place in Delta House. (The potential frathouse parallels increase to two if we assume that a Greek organization at Caltech or M.I.T. has a highly convincing bionic woman knocking around.) The sprawling, episodic nature of the work demands a versatile cast and inventive staging, making it a particularly ambitious undertaking for a company with limited resources.

Robert Stafford: One great villain. - SAN FRANCISCO PARLOR OPERA
  • San Francisco Parlor Opera
  • Robert Stafford: One great villain.

To that end, several talented performers were enlisted to make their Parlor Opera debuts. Tenor Michael Belle sang the title role with intensity and dramatic panache, while bass-baritone Robert Stafford as Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto continued the company's tradition of excellent villains. As Olympia, the aforementioned bionic woman, soprano Georgia Duan displayed a winning combination of vocal finesse and physical flair. Young tenor Matt Jordan Meadors held his own in the roles of Spalanzani and Andrès.

Justin Marsh and Patricia Urbano - SAN FRANCISCO PARLOR OPERA
  • San Francisco Parlor Opera
  • Justin Marsh and Patricia Urbano

Several Parlor Opera regulars rounded out the major roles. Patricia Urbano lent her tremendous soprano to the roles of Antonia, Giulietta, and Stella; as Nicklausse and the Muse, mezzosoprano Elizabeth O'Neill gave her best performance yet; and tenor Justin Marsh employed his Colbert-esque comedic chops to splendid effect as Nathanael, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio. Baritones Nathaniel Marken and Rolfe Dauz capably filled smaller parts. But as good as the vocalists were individually, the production's real strength was the quality of the ensemble singing -- whether in a barroom or a sickroom, the performers as a group demonstrated remarkable cohesion and chemistry, bolstered by musical director Jungmee Kim's fluid piano.

Unusual things happen to this man Hoffman. - SAN FRANCISCO PARLOR OPERA
  • San Francisco Parlor Opera
  • Unusual things happen to this man Hoffman.

Parlor Opera's usual go-to baritone, Cole Grissom, was regrettably absent from the cast, but proved himself a capable and inventive director. Very little of the performance space went unused, and the combination of the production's expansive scope and the performers' excellent ensemble work made it hard to believe that all this was going down in the smallish basement of a family residence. (Owing to rain on Saturday, two outdoor scenes had to be moved inside -- while the confinement resulted in an unbroken pre-intermission stretch that felt longer than ideal, it's a testament to Grissom's and the performers' skills that the show could be reconfigured so efficiently.)

Michael Belle and Elizabeth O'Neill - SAN FRANCISCO PARLOR OPERA
  • San Francisco Parlor Opera
  • Michael Belle and Elizabeth O'Neill

According to a note inside the playbill, an even more drastic reconfiguration is in store. Beginning with its next production -- American composer Carlisle Floyd's Susannah -- SF Parlor Opera will mount future shows in the 50-seat Kalmanovitz Amphitheater at USF. The expansion is in many ways logical, especially given that Hoffmann seemed to test the limits of the current space. But it's also true that constraint can be artistically generative, and indeed, some of the company's most memorable moments arose from its unique spatial challenges (including the neighbors' barbecue smoke and yapping dog kicking in at a serendipitous juncture in Faust). It's not without regret that I watch the curtain fall at 1652 Hayes, but neither do I doubt that SF Parlor Opera's next phase will be full of its own quirky, ever-evolving pleasures.

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Emily Hilligoss

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