Opera is one of the most fantastic art forms – literally. There is high drama, high emotion, passages of ecstatic joy and ardent love, and moments when some character or other plumbs depths of almost intolerable misery and despair.
When it comes to fantasy, The Tales of Hoffman has the market cornered.
The work, which will be performed at the Israel Opera between March 20-April 5 under the aegis of German director Derek Gimpel, was written by Jewish-French composer Jacques Offenbach, the son of a German cantor, to a libretto by Jules Barbier which is in turn based on three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffman. The latter is the protagonist in the staged work.
The work opens with a scene at a tavern in Nuremberg where we are informed by the poetry Muse that she intends to make the eponymous character devote himself solely to her, and to renounce all other amorous interests. In fact Hoffman has a total of three paramours – Olympia, who is, in fact, an automaton created by a scientist named Spalanzani, a singer called Antonia, and a courtesan by the name of Giulietta. All three episodes end badly for poor Hoffman, and in the epilogue we discover that all the members of the female triad are, in fact, traits of the same woman, Stella.
The Tales of Hoffman premiered – albeit without the third act – at the Opéra-Cornique in Paris on February 10, 1881. Sadly the composer did not live to see the work performed, having died just four short months before its unveiling. In the debut performance, the parts of Olympia, Antonia and Stella were all filled by the same singer, soprano Adèle Isaac.
The roles of Hoffman’s three loves in the forthcoming Tel Aviv production will be played by Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova, on her debut with the Israeli Opera. Petrova says she is delighted be here on her first working visit, and put in more than her pennyworth in the run-up to the opening night. “I have been here for around a month and it has been a challenge,” she notes.
“But, hey, life is full of challenges and, if you enjoy the challenges, you enjoy life.”
Petrova got in on the opera scene at a very young age. It was very much in her genes.
“My father is an opera singer, so I basically grew up in the theater,” she explains. “I would say that I knew I was going to become an opera singer when I was around the age of 12.”
Then again, she did not exactly get too much in the way of a paternal push in the direction of what eventually became her career path.
“My father did not want me to become a singer because he knew how difficult the profession is, but I had such a strong passion for opera that, for me, there was no question that I was going to do this.”
Petrova says she really could not avoid finding her way into the world of opera.
“I played the piano but I was not driven by that. But singing, for me, is completely different. It feels like I am on a mission.”
But her piano playing days are not going to waste.
“Playing an instrument affects the way I approach music in general. I am very grateful that I started studying music, and playing the piano, so early. I started on piano when I was seven. You know the brain develops differently [when you start playing at such a young age], and it is wonderful to have that knowledge and experience behind me, as a singer.”
Unlike her father, as a product of post-Soviet Russia Petrova was free to travel around the world from a young age. She gained her initial formal education at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, and subsequently honed her skills on the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program in New York. She says the Stateside training stint was a very different kettle of fish.
“I have to say it was much more stressful at the Met, because, first of all, it is one of the biggest and most important opera houses in the world, and being there as a young singer is already stressful.”
That was even despite the fact that taken that Petrova had a head start on most of her colleagues on the program.
“I had sung on the stage before I got to the Met, and I saw the singers on the program who didn’t have that experience, and they were really struggling. The pressure is always there, and you really need to have priorities and have it clear in your mind about what is important. And you have to remember that you can’t be perfect all the time.”
That is, surely, an important lesson for life itself, even though, naturally, Petrova has been gunning for that elusive level of professional perfection ever since she was small. To date, here repertoire has taken in the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, Oscar in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, and the title role in The Snow Maiden by Rimsky-Korsakov), to name but a few.
Acting is, of course, an integral part of any operatic role and Petrova gained some invaluable experience and instruction in that department when she featured as the Queen of the Night in the 2006 film of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute directed by Kenneth Branagh.
“That had a huge impact on me and I really felt I stepped up my acting after working with someone as talented as Kenneth Branagh,” says Petrova, adding that there is no time for resting on one’s laurels. “I never have the feeling that I know everything, about anything. I always try to improve. I learn from every production I take part in.”
For tickets and more information: www.israel- opera.co.il