Bart Sher’s new production of Offenbach’s masterpiece was broadcast today (December 19, 2009) in HD. Sher’s mounting of Rossini’s Barber a couple seasons back was very successful. This time around wasn’t as fortunate. His problem was that everything was almost invisible. His scenes were dark, darker, and darkest. When you could see what was going on it was because the action was in a spotlight. His concept was that everything was in Hoffmann’s mind – hence the odd mix of costumes and scenery. Nothing wrong with that provided you could see what was happening. The setting of the opera could just as well been Carlsbad Caverns as Luther’s Tavern, etc.
His next conceit was that the story was Kafkaesque. The staging which had a lot of nondescript junk strewn about seemed more like a touring company setting of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher than Kafka. The production wasn’t bad, it just lacked the brilliance that Offenbach’s magical score deserves. Speaking of magic, Sher took all of it out. This was most telling the the Antonia episode where there was no picture come to life nor anything miraculous about Dr Miracle. What saved the day was the generally excellent level of the performers. The Venetian scene seemed more like a New Orleans cat house realized by a Las Vegas hotel than it did a scene in 18th century Venice. There obviously were a lot of strange things going on in Hoffmann’s mind.
Because Offenbach died before Hoffmann could be staged nobody knows exactly how it should be presented. Every time I see it, it’s done differently. The current Met production has the Antonia scene as the second act while the Venetian scene is the third. Because I’m used to the reverse order I prefer it, but it’s likely that Offenbach wanted it done the way the Met is doing it this time around.
This production was originally slated for a much different cast than the one that was actually used. Joseph Calleja replaced Rolando Villazon who is suffering from a vocal crisis. Alan Held replaced Rene Papé as the four villains, Anna Netrebko decided not to sing all the female leads, Ekaterina Gubanova replaced Netrebko in Act 3, while Kathleen Kim sang Olympia in the first act. Kate Lindsey took over for Elina Garanča who replaced Angela Gheorghiu in Carmen. Got all that straight? Sounds like Casey Stengel is running the Met rather than the Mets. Despite all the substitution the Met got the right cast onstage.
Calleja had never sung Hoffmann before this run. This demanding role can be sung by either lyric or spinto tenors. Richard Tucker, Placido Domingo, and Neil Schicoff all had great success as Hoffmann. But so did Alfredo Krauss and Fernando de la Mora who both had much lighter voices. Calleja’s voice is still a puzzle. It is bright, musical, sweet, and has a secure top. Surprisingly he omitted the optional, but usual, high note in the first act. What I find troubling is the rapid vibrato that still affects his singing. I think he still hasn’t found the right focus for his voice. If he can rid himself of this vibrato which affects everything he does he could turn out to be a great singer. At 31 he’s still got a little time to fix this annoying mannerism. The tenor seems to have put on a lot of weight recently. Obesity is an occupational disorder of tenors. Nevertheless his acting was convincing as was his vocal portrayal of the conflicted hero.
Maestro James Levine has opened many cuts in the score or rather has inserted music typically not heard. The part of Nicklaus has been expanded so that it is a central part of the opera. Sher has made her an accomplice of the four villains. She’s trying to pry Hoffmann away from his physical lovers and towards his muse – her. Kate Lindsey’s impersonation was sinister. Her voice was under good control and continued to impress. This is a fine young artist.
Alan Held has played Hoffmann’s nemesis on many occasions. He was threatening and sang well enough though he’s not capable of the vocal strength that Papé would have brought or that James Morris has offered in the past. He also omitted the customary high note at the end of “Scintille diamant”. Alan Oke brought more energy than is usual to the four comprimario roles.
Netrebko was wise to forgo any attempt at singing all three of Hoffmann’s loves. She’s not Joan Sutherland and she’d have come to grief in the first act. Korean born soprano Kathleen Kim was so far into the stratosphere in Olympia’s “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” that the Met’s oxygen masks deployed. Her next engagement at the Met is a Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. The ease with which she dispatched the Doll’s Song indicates that she’ll have no trouble with “Grossmächtige Prinzessin”. Her voice is slender, agile, and can negotiate notes several tones above high C. She’s clearly a singer on the rise. She not only sounded like a doll, she really looked like one.
Netrebko appeared as both Stella and Antonia. There’s not much to do with the former character except look glamorous which she did. As Antonia she started with a restrained (it was almost thrown away) rendition of “Elle a fui, la tourterelle”, but by the end of the act she had thrown herself (literally onto a piano) into the part. Her portrayal of the young girl who sings herself to death was quite moving. Her voice has deepened and is now very lush. With her great looks and velvet sound I suspect more Puccini is before her. She is a little thinner than when she last appeared on these telecasts, but still hasn’t rid herself of all her post-partum poundage. Netrebko’s florid gyrations behind Deborah Voight while the latter was trying to conduct an interview before the start of the third act was a priceless diva moment. Even Diva Voight remarked “Diva.”
Ekaterina Gubanova sang well as the the courtesan Giulietta though she looked too matronly for the part. The part’s not big enough to get a full idea of what she can do.
Because Offenbach did not complete all of the third act and the epilogue, one hears different music with each new production of Hoffmann. Ernest Guiraud did a fine job finishing the work. The great concertato near the end of the third act is his, though based on Offenbach’s tunes. This time Maestro Levine found an ending to the piece that I’ve never heard before. Its an ensemble that leaves Hoffmann all to his typewriter. Next week I’ll post a collection of different endings to Hoffman. You can decide which you like the best.
Offenbach’s only opera is a supreme masterpiece even if no definitive version of it exists. Levine got all the beauty and pathos out of this unique work. Given the vocal, choral, and orchestral forces he had the opera triumphed despite an indifferent staging.