Tucked away on Spruce Street, Philadelphia, many blocks off the glittering Avenue of the Arts is a stellar training academy with the mission of preparing world-class opera singers. It’s called the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), and it offers resident artists from throughout the United States and all over the world a chance to study and perform in its four-year program.

The AVA has sent more than 30 alumni to the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera in the last thirty years, the most esteemed house in the United States. Anyone who attends an AVA production pays rapt attention to the performers because the young men and women on stage will soon be making names for themselves across the best stages of the world.

It’s always a pleasure seeing opera produced by the AVA. Every resident artist is given a chance to participate in each show. The artists singing principal roles on one night are the same ones singing chorus or lesser roles the next night, so that all the artists have opportunities to spread their wings. In addition, AVA showcases many of their productions in numerous locations around Philly, with seeming ease, though it can't be as easy as they make it look.

Tuesday’s nights production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann was held at The Haverford School, a large venue that allows for a generous, changing set and full orchestra. Hoffmann is Offenbach’s only opéra fantastique. In the hands of the AVA, it was, in a word, fantastic. There are many sparkling roles in Hoffmann, which the resident artists eagerly and expertly fill. The whole evening was simply an extravaganza of talent skillfully directed by David Gately and crisply conducted by Christopher Macatsoris that brought the audience to its feet for curtain call.

Hoffmann is a an opera in five acts with a libretto by Jules Barbier and based on the play of Jules Barbier and Michael Carré. It is an entertaining, sardonic tale that is at the same time a fanciful exploration of the relationship between a poet and his muse. Are poets enslaved or enraptured by their muses? Can they live without them? Can they fall in love? Or are the muses who are serve their poetry and prose always at the center of the writer’s affections?
Clearly, the AVA ensemble enjoyed presenting all of the evening’s revels, first as students in Luther’s tavern where they performed a rousing drinking song, which is observed by Hoffmann’s circumspect, conniving rival for Stella’s affection, Lindorf. As Hoffmann announces that he will spin out the three stories of the loves competing with his muse, the audience is delighted and filled with expectation. We can hardly wait for all these talented artists to reappear in the mad inventor Spalanzani’s laboratory; in Crespel, the violin maker’s home; and in the Venetian brothel in a scene which is now opera legend.

The scenes in Spalanzani’s laboratory had a rich steampunk flavor to them with futuristic costumes and other elements that were deliciously anachronistic. While Hoffmann is devastated to learn his love Olympia is actually a doll, the audience must laugh along with the guests at Hoffmann’s guile, especially since the character was expertly portrayed as a doll by soprano Maria Aleida. Aleida enthralled the audience with her performance but particularly with the top of her range, which was stratospheric.

Act IV which takes place in the Venetian brothel was another high point in this show. It is irony itself that “The Barcarolle” sounds like the music of the angels, yet is sung by courtesans, and one of the things that makes Hoffmann so appealing and refreshing. But then the audience isn’t expecting to see any genuine sentiment. Even if Hoffmann is himself unaware, we know he will never find happiness with another woman because his heart will forever be devoted to his muse.

The contributions of all the resident artists combined constituted a highlight of the evening (as is the case in any AVA show,) and they all deserve an accolade for the flavor and texture they bring to each scene. Another standout performance in that evening’s cast included tenor Jeffrey Halili, an ’06 alum who was a joy to watch, mining every ounce of comedic value out of his supporting roles. But the evening belonged to bass Scott Conner, who was a menacing Lindorf, Copéllius, and Dr. Miracle with a masterful voice—pitch perfect, resonant, and robust.

The Academy of Vocal Arts is offering six more productions through May of 2012, and I would heartily encourage you to see them. You will see nothing less than opera’s future stars on all the stages AVA calls home around Philadelphia. It is a thrilling and engaging opera experience—one not to be missed.