Transfigured tenor in ‘Hoffman’ lead

The San Francisco Lyric Opera premiere of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman” on Friday featured an excellent cast, well beyond what you’d expect from a small regional company, but there was one performance that impressed to no end.

Just a month ago, Richard Byrne sang the role of the Stage Manager in Festival Opera’s presentation of Ned Rorem’s “Our Town,” impressing with his diction and expert handling of Rorem’s “Ivesian American dissonance.” This time, he sang Hoffman as a nonpareil “French tenor,” with the right timbre and projection, clean vowels and high, pure, clear-as-a-bell sound.

There were some problems with tempi, but in tiny Florence Gould Theater, I heard the sound of an appealing, authentic Hoffman — a thrilling experience.

Note the emphasis on sound. Byrne and the rest of the cast were done in by Heather Carolo’s bizarre stage direction, making everybody stagger about. At one point, the Coppelius strutted in, hiding his face with his cape, a la Snidely Whiplash. Byrne himself kept lurching, knees bent, in weird, incongruous contrast with the effortless elegance of his singing.

Hoffman’s tales involve bizarre misadventures with the same woman (soprano Shawnette Sulker) in four different embodiments while being pursued by his nemesis (baritone Roberto Gomez) also taking on various forms.

Sulker’s Olympia was a firework of coloratura, with amazing staccato notes, and echo imitations that made one look for a double in the wings. All this while she was made to scramble all over the stage, not a mechanical doll but an insane dervish. The tiny soprano’s mezzo-ish Giuletta and lyric Antonia were beautifully sung, except for a couple of blown high notes and lacking more “fat” in the voice.

Gomez’s singing overcame the handicaps imposed by the director: his Coppelius was OK, Dappertutto better (except for his unfortunate tendency to push an already big voice that could do more with less), and Dr. Miracle the best of them all.

Katherine Growdon’s Niklausse presented a bright turn in the trouser role. Ross Halper, Martin Bell, Igor Vieira and Trey Costerisan sang well in multiple roles, although staging excesses especially for Costerisan’s Andreas, Chochenille, and Frantz were downright embarrassing.

Music direction had some problems. Unlike in his previous appearances, Barnaby Palmer conducted passages that were way too loud in this intimate hall, slowly settling down to a better balance. The small, ad-hoc orchestra performed well. The quartet of Rita Lee, Claude Halter, Meg Titchener and Robert Howard (each representing, respectively, a whole section of first and second violins, violas and cellos) was well-supported by woodwinds and four brass instruments. Ann Levin (clarinet) and Anna Maria Mendieta (harp) made fine contributions.

After a four-year run, Lyric Opera and its present venue will part company, according to a note in the program. The 333-seat Florence Gould Theater, in the Legion of Honor, is managed by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It is said to be raising the rent by more than doubling it, from $1,750 per evening performance to $4,250, and is demanding “an arbitrary cancellation clause.” Next year, instead of accepting the new contract, the company — whose low ticket prices range from $18 to $32 — is moving to 437-seat Cowell Theater in Fort Mason, a larger hall with better facilities, where rent may be as low as $800.

The Tales of Hoffman

Presented by: San Francisco Lyric Opera

Where: Florence Gould Theater, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Tickets: $32 general; $18 students; free for children under 12

Contact: (415) 392-4400; www.cityboxoffice.com

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