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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Opera Review: The Muse Always Wins

Prelude to Performance offers Les Contes d'Hoffmann.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The German poet, playwright and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, protagonist
of Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.
On Saturday night, the difficulties of Jacques Offenbach's final, unfinished opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann were met admirably by Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance program. This is the opera education program's ninth season of operation for Ms. Arroyo's program. The PTP shows at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse are an important proving ground for new vocal talent, a chance to let the stars of tomorrow make themselves heard.

Hoffmann is a challenge for any opera company. It has a unique three-fold plot, a huge cast, and a downbeat ending. And then there are the endless textual issues caused by the composer's death, and the fact that the positions of two of the show's three acts can be swapped, which tends to please singers but make dramatic hash out of the original libretto.

Offenbach wrote the title role for a lyric tenor with strong command of the French language and a world-weariness that makes the poet ultimately reject love for alcoholic stupor and outbursts of creativity. Joseph Michael Brent had a pleasing instrument, although his enthusiastic presence and idiosyncratic costume seemed to recall a youthful version of the title character on Doctor Who. That said, he sang the big arias with sweet, compelling tone, hitting the right emotional notes in the Kleinzach song and the big duet with Antonia in Act II.

Bringing these Tales to life were the Four Evil Geniuses, played with cool restraint by Korean bass our great villains, played by Korean bass Eui Jin Kim. Mr. Kim coped with a series of ridiculous costume changes (including a trope on Fritz Murnau's Nosferatu for Dr. Mirakle) and delivered a cunning, consummate quartet of memorable baddies. Conductor Robert Lyall thoughtfully gave him the optional aria "Scintille, diamant" to sing, capping his oily performance with this ode to venality.

The four female leads (Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta and Stella) were performed by a generally strong set of different voice types. Olympia's acrobatic Doll Song was sung by Sharon Cheng, who navigated the treacherous high notes and comic stop-starts with a mannequin-like straight face. Janini Sridhar's Antonia was less compelling, with a top that turned thin in the very upper register. Giulietta (Brandie Sutton) and Stella (Merla Khalia Adeeb) were almost a matched set, with big, smoky sopranos that complemented the other singers.

The textual complexities of this score were resolved by placing the "Giulietta" act third (as the composer intended) and using large quantities of material from the Oeser edition (which is popular with audiences but is mostly drawn from other Offenbach works in an effort to complete the third act.) Mr. Lyall included frequently cut numbers like "C'est l'amour vainqueur," an Act II aria for Nicklausse (Nian Wang). Ms. Wang's strong performance made the poet's  treacherous spirit guide and muse the most compelling figure in this evening. Strong support work also came from character tenor Marcos Cuevas, who made the most of the Act II "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre," sung (and danced) by the deaf servant Franz.

From the opening chords, Robert Lyall led a brisk, occasionally chaotic performance that bustled but sometimes led to ugly clashes between singers and orchestra. His orchestral leadership clearly preferred to emphasize  the raw energy of opera-bouffe over the dramatic moments, resulting in a funny, energetic show that lacked the last ideal drop of poetry. (The famous Act III Barcarolle was taken at a pace that would exhaust any gondolier.) That said, Mr. Lyall was inspired in the the Chanson de Kleinzach, drawing Wagner-style lyricism from his hero's sudden turn to reminiscence.

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