Florida Grand Opera is offering three big attractions as part of its production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, namely a cast led by soprano Elizabeth Futral and Canadian tenor David Pomeroy; the Cuban-born conductor Lucy Arner, one of a handful of women at the top of opera’s ranks, and another infusion of innovation and spectacle from André Barbe and Renaud Doucet, the directing and design team that put its creative stamp all over the company’s work last season.
The Tales of Hoffmann, which opens Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, is loosely based on three fantasy-filled short stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the German romantic poet (and forerunner of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe) whose vision is by turns horrifying and enchanting. In Offenbach’s opera, Hoffmann sits in a tavern, becoming more inebriated as he awaits the arrival of Stella, his paramour. With encouragement from the other patrons, he begins to recount tales of his three former loves. Embroidered with such elements as singing dolls, ghosts, mirrors that steal reflections and magic glasses, the stories surprise and engage.
One of the challenges facing any production of Hoffmann, last performed by FGO in 1999, is that no definitive version exists. Offenbach had only completed the piano score when he died at 61 in 1822, and Ernest Guiraud, the New Orleans-born composer who stepped in to orchestrate and add recitatives for the premiere, cut some important scenes. Even Offenbach’s intended order for the stories is in question. Although the piano score was lost in a fire in 1887, new music and versions continue to surface. As Arner says, Hoffmann is “one opera where you’re likely to see or hear something new every time you go.”
Audiences will definitely hear and see something new from Futral, who is tackling for the first time one of opera’s great challenges: singing all four of Hoffmann’s lead soprano roles. A North Carolina native who made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Lucia in 1999, Futral had turned down offers to undertake such a feat in the past but now says, “I feel like my voice is strong enough, and I have enough stamina.” Though her other roles — Olympia, a virtuosic automaton; the consumptive Antonia, whose desire to sing is killing her, and the courtesan Giulietta — place a variety of demands on the voice, “It’s not unusual to have [one] role that explores different ranges,” Futral says. “ Traviata is like that.”
Although Pomeroy, who made his 2009 Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role he sings for FGO, appears only as the poet, five other cast members join Futral in tackling multiple roles, with Bradley Garvin and Philip Skinner singing four each. Conductor Arner, who was an accompanist and vocal coach at the Met from 1994 to 2008, is particularly well equipped to shape the singers to their roles.
Born in Santiago, Cuba, Arner came to Miami with her family at 6 and grew up in Ohio. She earned degrees in piano performance at the University of Indiana and worked with Ivan Davis at the University of Miami before impressing enough of the right people to land a position at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, where she “did it all, and learned from the ground up.” In 2000, while still at the Met, she became artistic director of the New York Chamber Opera, but a conducting career was always her secret desire. Once she had the chance to observe conductors at the Met, she realized she had the talent and qualities the job required. She now leads ensembles all over the world and was the first woman to conduct opera in Mexico City’s historic Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Arner’s long friendship with director Doucet brings her to Miami for her FGO debut. Hoffmann, which she is conducting for the first time, is “as much a dramatic as well as a musical event,” she says. “The music is so theatrical you can shape [it] depending on what’s happening on stage,” and the multiple roles “add a whole dimension to the piece that most operas don’t have, not just vocally but personality-wise.”
Doucet and set designer and costumer Barbe, known for their spectacular settings for traditional operas, innovative use of technology and meticulous attention to score, created this production for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2008. Their intention, Barbe says, is to help the audience understand the point of view of a French gentleman of a certain era and to “do a show, so that people not familiar with opera are going to have a good time.”