|Byron Singleton and Anna Farysej|
Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman is one of our favorite French operas--loved for its three very different heroines and for the role of the Muse, even though Hoffman is the main character and has the largest part.
Vocal Productions NYC, in what we believe to be their fourth season, has given New York City two weekends of this gripping work and has put their own stamp on it, as most companies do, since the work has many versions. We cannot recall seeing any two productions that rendered it in the same manner. This production followed the order of acts designated by Offenbach but avoided Offenbach's intention to have the three loves portrayed by the same singer. We were happy about this because we had the opportunity to hear three different sopranos do what they did best.
Much of the credit goes to Conductor Jason C. Tramm and his magic baton, bringing out aspects of the orchestration that we never noticed before. We would be surprised if he did not interpolate some rarely performed music. At least we heard it anew and with great freshness. Solos were particularly excellent, especially that of the clarinet. Francisco Miranda, Artistic Coordinator and Associate Conductor, was at the piano. The theater at Washington Irving High School has a marvelous period feel but no orchestra pit. The downside was that several voices failed to sail above or through the orchestral output.
More credit goes to Director Kevin Courtemanche who did much with little resources by virtue of a keen imagination. He brought the action into vaguely contemporary times without doing any damage to the story. We still have writers who ruin their lives with drink and ill-advised love affairs. They still have companions who act as muses, trying to get them to focus on their art. And they still have nemeses who always turn up to spoil their fun.
The most impressive performances were those of the sopranos creating the roles of Hoffman's three loves. Anna Farysej gave a stunning portrayal of Antonia, the doomed singer under the "care" of the evil Dr. Miracle. Not only did she excel vocally in her introductory aria "Elle a fuit, la tourterelle", but also in her duet with Hoffman. We have written about Ms. Farysej for a few years now and have enjoyed watching her growth as an artist. When she sang of the fragility of the rose, one understood through her dramatic artistry and vocal coloring, that Antonia was aware of her own fragility. It was a memorable performance and should lead to future performances with other companies, or so we hope.
Soprano Monica Pasquini created an equally memorable Olympia. Director Courtemanche created a scene out of Bride of Frankenstein in which, sporting a scary black and white wig, red minidress and red boots she wiggled and bopped around the stage until ready to pass out. Dr. Spalanzani (Jared Goldstein) revived her with cardiac paddles emitting clouds of smoke. Theatrics aside, Ms. Pasquini's coloratura was right on the mark and served the character well in "Les oiseaux dans la charmille".
Soprano Su-Ling Huang seemed a counter-intuitive choice for Giulietta inasmuch as her tiny frame would never have convinced as a famous 19th c. courtesan but did just fine as the hostess of this strange costume party dressed like Anna May Wong. Again, the voice worked well for the part. The duet barcarolle "Belle Nuit" was lovely except that Emma Lavandier did not project over the orchestra, a pity because her acting was excellent. This deficiency marred a performance that was dramatically believable. Only the top of her register rang out. The middle and lower parts got lost.
Tenor Byron Singleton sang the punishing role of Hoffman with distinction but would have profited by better costuming and a wig. How odd that costumer Sangying Li exhibited such creativity with the other characters but put Mr. Singleton in a suit, tie and trench coat. It was difficult to think of him as a troubled poet!
There was no problem believing the booming voiced bass Claudio Mascharenas as the collective nemeses Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto. His large frame and imposing posture served him well and the threat was palpable. He made ample use of vocal coloring and varied between intensely dramatic gesture and stolid menace.
Excellent in several roles (Cochenille, Pittichinaccio, and Andreas) was Sam Varhan who lent a note of comic relief as Franz, the deaf servant of Antonia's father Crespel (Bill Atkinson, who also serves as Chorus Director). The chorus was fine musically but required crisper diction.
Mairi Mason appeared briefly as Stella, the opera singer who represents the embodiment of all Hoffman desires. Antonia's mother, as conjured by Dr. Miracle, was performed by Zhanka Melnechuk whose voice also failed to cut through the orchestra. Gene Howard had the role of tavernkeeper Luther and Victor Chapman sang Hermann and Schlemil.
The simple set is credited to Kent Gasser with special mention of the gondola in which Giulietta departs. Effective lighting by Serena Wong provided variety. We were sorry that Antigoni Gaitana's excellent supertitles were only intermittently legible, varying with the lighting of the set.
(c) meche kroop