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A phenomenal find at CPCC Opera Theatre's Tales of Hoffman

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Operating on a smaller budget, CPCC Opera Theatre seemed to be swimming impetuously against the tide by scheduling their Tales of Hoffman on the same weekend as the Op Carolina opening -- and opposite the latest Metropolitan Opera "Live in HD" screening. But with a strong lineup for six of the major roles, CP doyenne Rebecca Cook-Carter and musical director Roxanne Holt-Watson could legitimately dare us to compare.

With reasonable dispatch, Kim Renz's set design converted to all four scenes required in Offenbach's string of stories, including the Venetian salon with a couple of gondolas floating by. Musicians under Craig Estep's baton sounded surprisingly well, particularly the brass, and Halton is a great house for musical theater.

Technically, the Hoffman we saw at Lincoln Center was incomparable, but the central antagonists, Bart Gilleland as Councilor Lindorf/Dr. Miracle and Jeff Gwaltney as Hoffman can be mentioned in the same breath as their Met counterparts. Gwaltney brought youthfulness and energy to the poet -- lavishing a zingy barroom zest on the Kleinzach song in the prologue. Unlike RamÛn Vargas, who played the role in New York, Gwaltney seems to have gotten drunk once or twice in his life.

Gilleland is simply a phenomenal find, bringing all the malignity you could wish to Hoffman's nemeses. At the climax of Act 3, where the diabolical Dr. Miracle convinces the hapless Antonia to sing herself to death, Gilleland equaled the frisson of James Morris' fiendish cackle when he broke Hoffman's heart yet again.

Among those female heartthrobs, Heather Barley scored the greatest triumph as Olympia, nailing the famed "Doll Song" with her mechanical movement, her sudden droops, and her soprano staccato. Christina Richiger as the queenly courtesan Giulietta and Dora Hastings as Antonia followed ably and gamely, but Olympia is a tough act to follow.

Of course, you need deep, deep pockets and a deep, deep cast to altogether equal the splendors of the Met production. I'll throw a veil over the precipitous drop in proficiency that occurred beyond the roster of names already mentioned, exempting only Jeffrey Braaten -- resoundingly good as Antonia's father -- from the displeasure they inflicted.

The only egregious flubs of the evening came from the light booth, where the dude flashing the supertitles in the light booth was often clueless. What were the last words Stella, departing with the evil Lindorf, hurled at Hoffman as he snoozed in a stupor on the barroom table? Friday night's crowd never saw the translation.

Still CP's production must be judged an overachievement -- and a revelation to those who have never seen Offenbach's tuneful crowdpleaser here. Maybe it was the exact prodding Opera Carolina needed to bring a truly full production to the Q.C.

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