By Nino Pantano
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Whether it is the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Royal Opera or major opera houses worldwide, the name Martina Arroyo is revered. Her many appearances on “The Odd Couple” and “The Johnny Carson Show” made Martina Arroyo known outside the opera world as well. Arroyo’s brilliant soprano and great ebullient sense of humor made her a household name as well as a beacon and a pioneer for minorities in the opera world.
She was born in Harlem, and her father Demetrio was able to pay for his daughter’s education and cultural yearnings because of his job as a mechanical engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Martina also pursued a career as a public school teacher briefly before settling on opera.
Since her retirement in the 1990s, Martina Arroyo has been able to assist young opera singers through her foundation. This has permitted them to perform in her ninth “Prelude to Performance” series at the theatre named for Brooklyn’s own Danny Kaye and his wife and collaborator, Sylvia Fine. The intimate Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Playhouse is located at Hunter College and seats more than 600 people.
This year’s operas were Donizetti’s “L’Elisir D’amore” and Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” fully staged and costumed with a 32-piece orchestra. Famed Metropolitan Opera tenor singer and vocal coach Richard Leech made the opening remarks.
We attended the performance of “Tales of Hoffmann” on Thursday evening, July 11, where gifted young singers on the threshold seemed ready to conquer the future with their enthusiasm and talent.
Hoffmann, a drunken poet, tells the students in Luther’s Tavern in Nuremburg the story of his three loves -- Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta -- while waiting for Stella, an opera singer and his current love. The Muse of poetry disguises herself and becomes Nicklausse in order to guide him on his journey. Composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), famous for his “Can-Can” operettas, made one attempt at grand opera, and “Tales of Hoffmann” was his masterpiece.
Bass-baritone Yuriy Yurchuk was the devilish Councillor Lindorf as well as the villains Coppelius, Dr. Miracle and Dappertutto. Yurchuk’s dark, sinister bass-baritone, aided by his satanic-looking red cape, made him an arch-villain par excellence and a combination of Mephistopheles and Nosferatu. His brilliant singing as Dappertutto of “Scintille Diamant” was truly a highlight.
In the title role, Won Whi Choi was an impassioned Hoffmann. His exciting singing of the Kleinzach aria was but a prelude for his lyrico spinto tenor flights. Choi’s singing of the haunting love song “C’est Une Chanson D’amour” and his outstanding full-throated singing in duet, trio and ensemble, made his portrayal a powerful and unforgettable one. At the finale, the drunken Hoffmann now realizes that Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta are really only one -- Stella! Now he must concentrate on his poetry with the Muse to guide him.
Soprano Mizuho Takeshita delighted the audience as the veiled doll Olympia, who is real to Hoffmann because of his magic glasses. Her singing of the famed “Doll Song,” “Les Oiseaux Dans La Charmille,” with its treacherous coloratura passages, evoked quite an ovation.
Lenora Green was a superb Antonia. Her lush and powerful voice portends a Verdi-Puccini soprano of the highest order. Green’s singing of the wistful “Elle a Fuit, La Tourterelle” was poignant, and her singing in the trio with her dead mother and Dr. Miracle was dazzling.
Tamara Rusque was a wonderful Giulietta. Her bright vibrant soprano and sassy brassy bravado made her a perfectly seasoned trollop with enough spice to fool any man, including Hoffmann. Stealing Hoffmann’s reflection for Dappertutto was a piece of cake. Her sultry sensuous singing of “Belle Nuit, O Nuit D’amour" (with Nicklausse) was magical.
Chantelle Grant was Antonia’s mother, singing her heart out in a fine spun mezzo-soprano.
Mezzo Kirsten Scott was a superb Nicklausse. Scott’s singing in the famed Barcarolle was perfection and her portrayal throughout, including the narration as the Muse at the finale, was sung and spoken with tonal beauty and élan.
Francisco Corredor was a marvel as Andres, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio. His versatile tenor enchanted us in Frantz’s “I Want To Sing” aria.
Bass-baritone buffo Benjamin Bloomfield was beguiling as tavern master Luther, Antonia’s father Crespel and Schlemiel. His “larger than life” persona and strong plummy voice make him a very valuable asset to any major company.
Walter Jermaine Jackson sparkled as Nathanael and Spalanzani, his robust expressive tenor soared.
Soprano Meroe Khalia Adeeb was impressive as Stella, Hoffmann’s opera singer love. Her final look of pity and disgust at his drunken stupor as she exits with Lindorff said it all.
Conductor Robert Lyall gave a vigorous brisk paced performance and met all the challenges of the thrilling ensembles in this glorious melodic score. The famed Barcarolle was haunting and truly whispered of a night of magic and intrigue in Venice.
Charles Caine’s eye-catching costumes were dazzling, and the party scenes sparkled. The sets were vivid and Venice was complete with gondolas.
Resonant bass baritone Samuel Thompson was an excellent Hermann.
Kudos to French diction coach Susan Stout. E. Loren Meeker’s stage direction was a marvel. Bravo also to Nicholas Fox, assistant conductor/chorusmaster. We thank the Gerda Lissner Foundation and its President Stephen DeMaio for their generous assistance and were delighted also to chat with Martina Arroyo afterwards.
Martina Arroyo’s warmth, great talent and personal pride in her students make her a national treasure. This was a “Hoffmann” to remember!