Won Whi Choi and Kirsten Scott (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)
At world famous opera houses, singers fly in from all over the world, generally experienced in the role for which they have been hired; they have the briefest of rehearsal times. Not so at Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance, a program she began a decade ago. Participants in the program are chosen by audition from a large field of applicants and given scholarships; they spend a considerable period of time in concentrated study, focusing mainly on character development and authenticity. Coaches and master teachers help them hone their skills. The results are impressive. The young singers, many on the cusp of major careers, work together as an ensemble and give a performance of convincing authenticity.
We do not go to the opera to learn about current events and politics; we go to be transported to another time and place. This goal is best achieved by supporting the intentions of the composer and librettist and this is something at which Prelude to Performance excels. We do not see machine guns, cell phones or black leather coats. We see what audiences saw when the opera was first premiered. In the case ofLes Contes d'Hoffman,that was 1881 at the Opéra Comique. Jacques Offenbach had seen a play entitledLes Contes Fantastique d'Hoffman, written in 1851 by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, which had woven together a number of stories written by E.T.A. Hoffman between 1814 and 1819; he chose Mr. Barbier as his librettist. Poor Mr. Offenbach died shortly before the premiere and had not finished orchestrating the work. Fervent musical scholarship has nearly succeeded in eliminating the spurious changes to the work and come up with a definitive version.
The framework of the story is the character Hoffman recounting the three great loves of his life and his realization that his current lady love, the diva Stella, is an amalgam of all three-- the young girl, the musician and the courtesan. The theme of the story is the devotion of the artist to his craft versus the pursuit of love. The character The Muse takes on the identity of Hoffman's best friend Nicklausse and takes part in all three of his adventures, always trying to rescue him from his ill-fated romantic adventures so that he may devote his life to art. Each act has a villain, the personification of evil and Hoffman's nemesis.
In last night's cast, tenor Won Whi Choi impressed us with his beautiful singing and convincing acting. His Hoffman was well into his cups during the Prologue, doing a memorable rendition of "Kleinzach"; he created a sympathetic poet who cannot take care of himself and really needs The Muse to bail him out. The power of his voice grew as the evening progressed and he shone both in his arias and in his duets.
As The Muse, Kirsten Scott created a winning character and sang with a lovely evenness of tone throughout her register. One sensed the worthiness of her motives and the resourcefulness of her strategies. We particularly enjoyed her "Violin Aria".
As the perennial heavy, bass-baritone Yuriy Yurchuk was evil personified. In the tavern scene, he was the arrogant Councillor Lindorf who plots to steal the Prima Donna Stella away from Hoffman. In the Olympia act, he portrayed the nasty Dr. Coppelius who sells Hoffman the magic glasses that make him see the doll as a real woman. In the Antonia act, he is the wicked Dr. Miracle who causes Antonia's death. In the Giulietta act he is the evil magician who bribes Giulietta with a diamond in order to steal Hoffman's reflection. In every case, he created a different color of evil. Let us not fail to mention the richness of his voice. This man has low notes to spare!
One more character appears in every act as a servant and tenor Francisco Corredor deserves to be singled out for his contribution as comic relief. His Cochenille moved as mechanically as Olympia causing the audience to burst into laughter; he was again hilarious as the hearing-impaired Frantz who would really prefer singing and dancing to serving Dr. Crespel. In the Giulietta scene he portrayed Pitichinaccio.
Bass Benjamin Bloomfield made a fine Luther, absorbing all the good natured taunts of the students. He appeared again as Crespel, Antonia's possessive father and later as Schlémil, one of Giulietta's lovers. Again, he excelled at creating different characters.
Originally, the three important women's roles were sung by the same soprano and this is occasionally done in modern times. Nonetheless, due to the drastically different types of voices called for, it seems better to cast each role with a different soprano. Last night we loved the finely honed coloratura of Mizuho Takeshita as Olympia the mechanical doll. A superb lyric soprano Lenora Green was affecting as Antonia who loves Hoffman and loves singing and must make a choice. The larger voice of Tamara Rusqué was perfect for the wily courtesan Giulietta.
Walker Jermaine Jackson made a fine Spalanzani; Samuel Thompson did equally well as Hermann; Chantelle Grant sang the voice of Antonia's mother; and Meroe Khalia Adeeb made a great diva in the role of Stella.
Robert Lyall conducted and we heard some fine sounds, especially from the woodwinds and horns. We appreciated the directorial choices of E. Loren Meeker who kept the action moving and told the story cleanly without any directorial conceits. Costume design by Charles Caine was exactly right, as were Wig and Makeup Design by Steven Horak who did especially well with the villain roles.
The set design was not credited but the entire opera took place in Luther's Nurenberg tavern with half-timbered walls. It was simple and it worked. The three "Tales" utilized a minimum of furniture which brought the attention to the singers. The singers were the stars last night. Even the chorus, directed by Nicholas Fox, shone brightly. The opera will be repeated Saturday night and we are eager to see the other cast. We expect they will put as much magic in the magic realism as last night's cast.