The Met in HD: “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”
On Saturday afternoon the 19th, we went to South Shore Cinema for another Metropolitan Opera simulcast, this time of “Les Contes d’Hoffman” (“Tales of Hoffmann”). The libretto, by Jules Barbier, is loosely based on some of the weird short stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, and set to music built on a piano score completed by Jacques Offenbach shortly before his death in 1880.
We enjoyed the new production, with stage direction and design by Bartlett Sher, although a lot of it is, again, dark. Of course, at least one of the three acts is explicitly set at night, and it could reasonably be argued that Spalanzani’s party in Act One would be an evening affair, and the eerie events of Act Two seem best set at night also--.
The story starts with a prolog set in Luther’s Rathskeller. The author and poet Hoffmann (Joseph Calleja) joins the roistering students to drown the sorrows of his lost loves, and tells the stories that make up the acts. Hoffman is accompanied by his friend Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey), whom we know is the Muse in disguise. The Muse has vowed to “protect” Hoffmann from having love distract him from his work--. We see in this production that the Muse is a jealous mistress, particularly in the second act where we see Nicklauss actively conspiring with the vampiric Doktor Miracle to bring about the death of Antonia (Anna Netrebko, who also sings the role of “Stella,” the diva). Ms. Lindsey sang and acted the dual role faultlessly.
In some productions (as Offenbach planned), the roles of Stella, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are all sung by the same soprano, reflecting that they are all facets of the same ideal lover in Hoffmann’s mind, and the four villains, Councilor Lindorf, Coppelius, Miracle, and Dappertutto are all sung by the same bass-baritone. However, doing all four female roles is very difficult, as they are very different vocal parts, so the Met decided to have the role of Olympia sung by the petite Kathleen Kim. Ms. Kim made a marvelous dancing doll. She said in one of the interview segments that she had practiced extensively before a mirror in order to keep her face as immobile as possible while nevertheless singing Olympia’s demanding aria, and the effort showed.
Ms. Netrebko delivered the lyrical beauty of Antonia’s role with great fluidity and power, and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova gave good warmth and life to the role of the courtesan Guilietta, although her 18th Century costume may have been a factor in making her less seductive than Guilietta is supposed to be.
Alan Held sang all four villain roles very nicely. He has minimal changes of costume for each scene, underscoring the fact that he is, underneath, the same devil of misfortune that haunts Hoffmann’s love life.
The role of Hoffman was sung by Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who was essaying the role for the first time. He looked just fine as the rather rumpled writer, and sang with sweetness and power that delighted us. Although the New York Times opening night review reported him as having some minor unsteadiness, he seemed to have gotten past that for the performance we saw.
The principals were well supported by Mark Schowalter as the doll maker Spalanzani (complete with “Dr. Horrible” lab coat and gloves) and Alan Oke in the roles of the four servants, Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio.
The overall production gave a nice (if subdued, due to the lighting) impression of memory and illusion bleeding over from one story to the next, as background figures recur from one scene to another along with the singers incarnating the main characters.