Calleja, Lindsey, Held, Kim, Netrebko, Gubanova, Oke / Levine
The true value of the Met's new production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann may take several revivals -- and, perhaps, a tenor less spellbinding than Joseph Calleja -- to reveal itself, but after last night's premiere I would call it at the least the greatest (and perhaps the first) native triumph of Peter Gelb's term as General Manager. (Butterfly, Trovatore, and others were imports that played to much acclaim before arriving.) And certainly when one includes the cast contribution, this is the event of the season so far. If you can't get tickets, at least see the (unfortunately to-be-censored) movie version later this month.
His Met debut Barber of Seville was antiseptic, but that seems to have been a trial run for director Bartlett Sher. His work for Hoffmann retains some of the tics of that Barber (door frames, etc.) but this time shows a fittingly operatic imagination lacking in that first try.
Sher's Hoffmann opens with a tableau of ruinous desire: mostly-nude women sprawl -- as if mannequins, or in the aftermath of a debauch -- on the floor and on the benches that will, when the scene turns from vision into reality, become Luther's tavern in Nuremberg. (Seriously: I'd never expected to see a passel of pasties prominently featured at the Met -- wasn't it just yesterday that the skin content of Moses & Aron had to be tuned way down?) Meanwhile Hoffmann's writing desk sits, covered with papers, downstage left, where it will remain for all but the Antonia act, for which it's temporarily displaced by Antonia's own piano -- also covered with papers.
This is the basic schema of the opera -- doomed-to-fail desire versus the artistic recompense for its failure -- and Sher sets it out strikingly. The initial women stir, others (clothed) appear -- unidentified, but later shown to be visions of Stella, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta -- and in the poet's corner the Muse goes to sing her intent: she will wean Hoffmann from his ruinous attachments and lead him to success in art.
And in a sense the three Hoffmann stories within this frame tell of desire's basic perils: Olympia (the doll) is about the possibility of bestowing love on someone worthless and ridiculous; Antonia (the too-frail singer) about the awful potential consequences of desire's consummation (though yes, she is ultimately done in by the singer's desire for glory and not romantic desire per se); and Giulietta (the courtesan who steals Hoffmann's shadow) about the possibility of grasping both of the previous perils and yet choosing ruin.
The art, of course, is in the telling itself, both by Hoffmann within the story and by Offenbach, his librettists, the cast, and the production team in our world. In this case Sher, set designer Michael Yeargan, and costume designer Catherine Zuber have, as most predecessors, found varied and striking elaborations for the various settings and acts while maintaining a unifying base: the black floorboard space that underlies all locations, the artist's paper-strewn surface, and Hoffmann's dark suit and coat (the outfit -- though thankfully sans hat most of the time -- much seen in ads).
Sher writes of his first inspiration for the production being Kafka, but there is no trace of that left in what's actually onstage. The 1920s do get a decent airing -- the half-dressed half-sinister decadents are more than a little Weimar, and one might associate Hoffmann's outfit with Chaplin or Magritte, who both flourished in that decade -- but there's no Kafka. The other stated influence -- Fellini -- is fairly present in spirit, helping the stunning and fantastic stage pictures Sher creates in the Olympia and Giulietta acts (the latter with another -- this time applause-inducing -- surprise display of flesh). In between, oddly enough, is what seems to be an homage to Carsen's great Onegin here, with a field of white, characters seen by their shadows, and minimal scenery...
Sher et al. do add one thread, or rather raise it out of subtext: Hoffmann's difficulty fitting in (and eventual ejection from all the milieus outside the tavern), as Offenbach had had difficulty as an artist and a Jew. This got a bit too cute at the end, with Hoffmann picking up the white cloth the revelers had been using to act out Kleinzach and himself wearing it to evoke a tallit (he does take it off at the very end when he sits down to his art), but other elements -- like the separate space created by his desk in each scene -- work well.
More on the production when I see it again soon.
The cast was the side that had the most upheaval, but one wouldn't have known it from this premiere. Rolando Villazon for Hoffmann became Calleja -- who, though prodigious in gifts, had never sung the part before in his life. Anna Netrebko as all the heroines became Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Netrebko as Antonia/Stella, and Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta. Finally, Elina Garanča for the Muse/Nicklausse became Kate Lindsey and Rene Pape as all the villains became Alan Held. James Levine, after recent back surgery, did recover in time to conduct the premiere as scheduled.
Calleja first. I've had huge expectations of him since his 2006 debut, and while his bit in the 125th Anniversary Gala created yet more believers, he's still only 31 and had never sung a role of nearly Hoffmann's weight or length before anywhere, much less at the Met. And yet, while I agree with Maury that he -- particularly at the beginning of the night -- was a touch cautious and didn't show quite the freedom and rhythmic/expressive mastery one has heard from him in Italian pieces and from others here, Calleja makes the show, and would make it a must-see even if Sher's staging were leaden. When he sings -- which is much of the long night, and he makes it through without issue, even sounding strongest and most free at the end -- the show is about little else but sitting there and taking in his implausibly spacious golden-age sound. It's the sort of experience that justifies the otherwise-laughable tenor cult and all its otherwise-inexplicable trappings, the sort that makes me regret not having been able to take an opera novice or two to this performance.
Calleja, as in his Elisir, also does well conveying the straightforward, earnest love and desire of his character. (It is the addition of this true-feeling central character that transforms the hijinks around him -- much of which might otherwise fit in the frothy operettas that long made Offenbach famous -- into serious and even sinister stuff.)
His ladies did reasonably well, though as perhaps appropriate for this unified production telling Hoffmann's story none were able to really compete with the hero. Kathleen Kim came the closest, but Olympia's dazzling aria has often taken the laurels (not least for Natalie Dessay in 1998). On the strong and full-voiced (as opposed to delicate/elegant) side among Olympias, Kim pulled off her showpiece well, particularly the end. This plus the charm she showed in making a splash in Rusalka has me excited to hear her Zerbinetta later this season.
Netrebko, fairly wisely, stuck to the regular soprano part (Olympia is high-soprano and Giulietta a mezzo) among the heroines. After sounding surprisingly poor and even old -- ungainly, unsteady, with pitch issues and little distinguished sound beyond the huge high notes -- in the initial aria ("Elle a fui"), she improved through the act to a pretty good (and quite loud) climax (though the repeated clutching and re-clutching at the papers as she died was a bit much).
Gubanova sang quite well in the least grateful heroine part (Giulietta). The real mezzo part in the opera is, of course, the pants role of Nicklausse. Kate Lindsey was, as ever, excellent in male attire and, as ever, sang with admirable style and panache. In this opera her instrument isn't on the same dominant scale as, say, Calleja's, but that fits: Nicklausse is Hoffmann's sidekick, not the other way around.
Alan Held did well as the villains, musical and plausibly menacing despite his not-so-dark basic sound, but didn't make much of his big Venetian solo ("Scintille, diamant"). Alan Oke sang very well -- not least in Frantz's song parodying Antonia's musical ambition -- but probably didn't get as much applause as he deserved because he blended in to the other bit players at curtain call.
Levine's firm hand was welcome in this kaleidoscope of moods.
There is a lot in this production and in this opera, almost too much to take in at once. Fortunately, it runs until January 2. Unfortunately, it's pretty much all sold out. Still...