Much of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann ('Tales of Hoffmann') remains shrouded in a fog of uncertainty. The same can be said, perhaps, of E.T.A. Hoffmann's bizarre tales upon which the opera is based.
In this new Metropolitan Opera production, Director Bartlett Sher takes a cue from Stanley Kubrick and keeps the ambiguities intact, leaving it to the observer to connect the dots. When Sher's psychoanalytical journey into Hoffmann's unconscious came to a conclusion, I felt certain about one thing only: Imaginative staging, superior singing and convincing acting add up to good theater – and even better opera.
Les Contes d'Hoffman was left unfinished at the composer's death in 1881, and while Offenbach assigned the task of completing the musical score to his colleague Ernest Guiraud, he left no further instructions concerning any aspect of the work that would prove useful to posterity. With no definitive version of the score (we can't even be sure of the composer's preference for the order of the acts), any attempt to reconcile Offenbach's presumed wishes in a modern production is bound to offend someone, somewhere.
Scholars and purists aside, it's difficult to find bones to pick with James Levine's current revisions to the (now-discredited) Oeser edition of Offenbach's score. And while the amalgam of several musical sources in this four-hour production might benefit from a haircut, or at least a trimming, Levine's newfangled adaptation allows the dramatic action to unfold at an agreeable pace while rekindling arguments about Offenbach's rightful place among 19th-century French opera composers.
Save for the Prologue and Epilogue, the plot of Les Contes d'Hoffmann unfolds as a chain of three flashbacks by the principal character, Hoffmann – a distracted (if not altogether reluctant) poet whose bizarre tales of love and woe center on the celebrated opera singer, Stella, with whom he is obsessed. It's not clear whether Hoffmann's eager audience of waiters and students at Luther's Tavern, where the tales are being recounted, realizes that the female characters in each of Hoffmann's three stories/fantasies are different manifestations of the diva, Stella.
Sher, a Tony Award winner whose initiation into the milieu of opera began with a highly acclaimed Met production three years ago of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, went out on a limb with this production – which blurs the border between art and entertainment as it intertwines elements of both cabaret and opera. Sher's production team focuses upon the subliminal aspects of the three tales through a visual potpourri of seemingly non sequitur backdrops that include Kafka-esque images of 1920s Germany and a Fellini-inspired image of 18th-century Venice seething in decadence.
Joseph Calleja, as the über-romantic protagonist smitten by the immutable forces of love, Hoffmann, forges a convincing persona as the troubled artist yanked from his typewriter (in Sher's production) by Cupid's arrow, then set upon a tortuous journey that leads to anguish and humiliation at every turn. The Maltese tenor, who under the scrutiny of the Met's HD Simulcast camerawork looks like a young Orson Welles, comes off appropriately stubborn, determined and pigheaded.
Calleja's acting was consistently strong throughout the performance, and his handsome and meaty tenor was at once attractive to the ear, due largely to his sensitivity of delivery and attention to nuances of phrasing. While Calleja's quick vibrato during the Prologue's Drinking Song ('Il ètait une fois à la cour d'Eisenach') occasionally muddied his words in the higher registers early on, his vocal quality shifted into a more relaxed gear as the performance unfolded. By his dramatic Second Act duet with Netrebko, Calleja's tessitura was almost completely homogeneous.
As the persona behind the opera's four villainous roles, bass-baritone Alan Held looked and acted the part of Hoffmann's nemesis, with commanding stage presence and an imposing bass-baritone. Held's satanic gaze as he flaunts the diamond ring in the third-act scene with Giulietta ('Scintille, diamante') – which viewers of the HD broadcast experienced to an extent perhaps unmatched by the crowd at Lincoln Center – lent a chilling touch of credibility to his character's veil of arrogance and omnipotence.
To say that Kathleen Kim a living doll is just stating the obvious. Having lucked into the role of Olympia after Anna Netrebko reneged on an earlier agreement to sing all four roles of Hoffmann's paramours (as Offenbach had intended), Kim fashioned the role of crazed inventor Spalanzani's mechanical amusement from visual to aural perfection. The petite coloratura soprano won the crowd over with her dexterous miming of the doll's herky-jerky motions, then dazzled the listener's sensibilities with her note-perfect delivery of the Doll Song ('Les oiseaux dans la charmille'), as she navigated the treacherous vocal arpeggiations (which several times reached a high E-flat) with agility, ease of delivery – and smack on-pitch. In a nice touch during the hearty applause that followed, Kim remained completely in-character, using cogs and wheels to fashion a series of gracious bows.
In both voice and manner of stage presence, Anna Netrebko's melancholic portrayal of the frail Antonia in Act II was among the highpoints of the performance. Netrebko's voice continues to darken in timbre, and her rich soprano is flexible enough to navigate through a wide variety of expressive dynamic shifts and phrasings, such as during her scene-opening 'Elle a fui, tourterelle'. Ironically, the weighty mellowness of Netrebko's voice created an unwelcome contrast in her duet with the Calleja, whose lyric tenor is not at all well-suited to hers.
As Hoffmann's protective Muse, the ubiquitous Kate Lindsey made an attractive sidekick to Calleja as the poet's friend, Nicklausse. Lindsey, whose voice appeared curiously muted in the Prologue and throughout the First Act, gathered steam and then blossomed by her Act II 'C'est l'amour vainqueur', as she counsels Hoffmann to recognize that artistic love trumps romantic love.
Lindsey's character, which may be considered the glue that binds all three acts (five, including Prologue and Epilogue) together, is arguably the most difficult of this production to grasp: She is a protector (Muse), a friend and companion (Nicklausse), an instigator, and perhaps even a romantic rival to Stella for Hoffmann's affections. Either way, Lindsey achieved a solid stage presence, and I never grew tired of seeing her.
Ekaterina Gubanova fashioned a credible, albeit not too visually appealing, Giulietta – Venice's leading courtesan and narcissistic temptress who steals Hoffmann's shadow (soul). Gubanova's dramatic soprano in her fiery duet with Calleja ('Si ta presénce m'est ravie') in Act III was thick and mellow, with a pleasant quality that came however at the expense of diction (which I found rather difficult to follow). In spite of an exquisite late 18th-century period gown designed by Catherine Zuber, Gubanova had a rather difficult task competing for the audience's attention against Sher's scantily clad supernumeraries, their legs protruding high into the air to the racy choreography of Dou Dou Huang.
As the opera's comic relief during an otherwise somber scene with the dying Antonia, Alan Oke, as the servant Frantz, provided a healthy and welcome dose of levity as he informs the audience that only by singing and dancing is he able to tolerate the humiliating tasks given him by Antonia's father, Crespel. Oke played three other minor roles, as well: Stella's servant, Andrès; Spalanzani's servant, Cochenille; and Pitichinaccio, one of Giulietta many admirers.
Catherine Zuber's period suits enhanced the early 20th-century vision of Sher's Germany, and her odd mix of fantasy and 18th-century Venetian period-gowns in Giulietta's scene provided a faithful complement to the cabaret-like imagery of the action onstage.
Dou Dou Huang's pseudo-erotic choreography of the 'showgirls,' toned down considerably for Saturday's 'family-friendly' broadcast version, enhanced the Venetian party-like atmosphere of Act III, and his delightful choreography of the mechanical dolls in the First Act proved a treat to the eyes as well as the ears. Lighting Designer James Ingalls' morphing shades of violet and mauve in Act II reaches deeply into Netrebko's character as Antonia, heightening the tragic heroine's gloomy shades at the gates of death.
Michael Yeargan's versatile sets smartly mirrored Hoffmann's fantasy-ridden storytelling, from the lean (if not emaciated) surroundings of Antonia's gloomy home to the festive atmosphere of the tavern scenes.
James Levine, who returned to the podium earlier this month following back surgery, led an alert Metropolitan Opera Orchestra that appeared eager to please him. Tempos generally sparkled with effervescent lightness of French opéra comique, yet proved sufficiently malleable to capture the poignancy, color and substance of Antonia's scene in Act II. I was especially impressed with the violin obbligato and concertante wind passages in Nicklausse's Second Act aria.
The men's chorus of waiters and eager students soared in-time to the quick pace of the Prologue's celebrated drinking song ('Drig! drig! drig!'), and were strong in voice as Spalanzani's house guests at the conclusion of Act I.
By David Abrams
Photos: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera
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