The Metropolitan Opera’s 2009 production of Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann is back, just as dark, busy, and surreal as ever, Kafkaesque, Felliniesque, you name it, and still just as long as ever, because, bless them musicologists, they just keep finding more pages of the score. But again this time Hoffmann comes to us with an overall first rate cast and is therefore just as enjoyable and moving as ever. It’s one of my favorite operas, has always been so since the good old days of Nicolai Gedda, my first.
It’s a tenor opera. Happily over the years the Met has cast Hoffmann to strength, fishing from the world’s pool of great singers. I very much enjoyed Joseph Calleja in the production’s first season, and of course many others before him. The choice of Vittorio Grigolo for this run may, for some, seem to contradict the above, but I find the young man’s ardor in voice and expression, his desperation in character totally winning in performance on stage. Grigolo brings an unchecked, unflagging passion to his Hoffmann and to his interactions with all of the others, especially with his women.
Apart from the fräulines, Hoffmann’s most frequent companion is his Muse of Poetry, his inspiration, who at times assumes the guise of Nicklausse, his friend and protector. Mezzo Kate Lindsey repeats her marvelous essay on these roles from 2009. Most of the music added to Hoffmann since way back when concerns the Muse/Nicklausse character, either directly in solo numbers or in interactions with others. Like Hoffmann, she is on stage a very large percentage of the time, which is just fine with me in Lindsey’s case.
Thomas Hampson has never been a singer to rest on his impressive catalogue of laurels. Here he adds the long night of characters to his playlist, characters who, well, shall we say, are ‘obstructions’ to Hoffmann’s happiness in one way or another: Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto. In order, Hampson is coldly aristocratic, maniacal, daemonic, and downright mean and manipulative, and, at the end of the evening in the Venice scene, he manages Scintille, diamant! with panache. Bravo!
Soprano Hibla Gerzmava sings both Stella, the opera singer (not a big role) and Antonia, the singer whose health prevents her from following her art. Gerzmava’s ample voice fills the house with ease. The coloratura role of Olympia, l'automate, is charmingly taken by the young Erin Morley; Christine Rice is a beautiful Giulietta, the courtesan.
The others include the brilliant, I think, character tenor Tony Stevenson as Andrès, Cochenille, Franz, and Pitichinaccio. He brings back the feel of these roles as heard on the ’48 Opéra Comique Hoffmann under Cluytens. David Crawford is a forceful student Hermann and a nasty Schlémil; Dennis Petersen is the student Nathanaël and the crazed Spalanzani; David Pittsinger is Luther, the tavern keeper, and also Antonia’s father Krespel. Olesya Petrova is the spirit of Antonia’s Mother.
Kudos to the Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Donald Palumbo for their contributions in voice and characterizations, not only in the more rousing chaos of Luther’s tavern, but also in the big Septet in Venice and the grand finale when Hoffmann finally gets his act together and starts to tickle the keys of his typewriter again.
Conductor Yves Abel gives a spirited reading of Offenbach’s wonderful score.
Bartlett Sher’s production, with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, plays well still, though I find it sometimes too busy when it shouldn’t be or not busy enough when it isn’t. The darkness of it all makes it much like a dream, even a nightmare in which the narrative is interrupted frequently by uninvited, perhaps unwanted persons from previous scenes or from those yet to come. The experience is at first puzzling, but on each recurrence one learns to roll with it. Cognitive flexibility is a virtue in these cases.
I very much loved Hoffmann on stage and in HD the last time. This go-around should be no different. Don’t miss it.
Photos: Marty Sohl.
Review performance date: January 22, 2015.
Be advised: the performance running time is about 3 hours 25 minutes, including two intermissions.
Make it special. Bring someone you love. Or maybe four. Smile: the days are getting longer!