Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Third Hoffmann's Tale

Les Contes d'Hoffmann -- Metropolitan Opera, 10/06/2010
Filianoti, Lindsey, Abdrazakov, Mosuc, Gerzmava, Shkosa, Sorensen / Fournillier

In 1999, Placido Domingo's Operalia competition gave prizes to three tenors -- aged 21, 25, and 27. The eldest, blessed with rare dramatic abandon and engagement, was first to superstardom -- until his intense temperament abetted a vocal crash&burn from which recovery looks desperately unlikely. The youngest -- and most sonically gifted -- is more bel cantist by temperament, and will bring his golden-age lyric tenor voice to Boheme, Rigoletto, and Lucia this winter. And the middle one, a singer with both hyper-intense and bel canto sides -- well, his fate has fallen between the others' as well.

The three took turns in this one place: each the face of the Met's Tales of Hoffmann. Rolando Villazon (the eldest) was the lead featured, with prominent pictures, in the original production announcement preceding last season. But even that was after his Lucia meltdown, and so it was little surprise when he was dropped. Joseph Calleja (the youngest) has been admirably cautious in his career development, so his taking on the long heavy role of Hoffmann (far more taxing than anything he'd done here) was a surprise... But to open a prominent new Met production (with moviecast) is something, and in fact he made a success of the actual show, one of 2009-10's highlights.

This season Giuseppe Filianoti (the middle) has taken the lead, and as I noted in the season preview, it was impossible beforehand to know what to expect. He made a worthy splash in 2005 (as Lucia's Edgardo, another common thread we'll see again in February), but the big illness-driven crisis soon after (attributed at the time to peritonitis but in fact apparently thyroid cancer) had him seemingly headed in the wrong direction even after years of recovery, with even his effective singing being more vulgar and one-dimensional than what he'd early promised. Last year's worrisome performance of Rigoletto's Duke could have portended the worst in this -- again -- much more taxing sing.

*     *     *

But we didn't get the worst of Filianoti -- we got something like the best. Not just high notes but all of his singing was fully commanded: fearless and phrased with all his characteristic intensity, while no longer lacking in grace or vocal support. Only a few on-but-raw notes near the end of the first act recalled the iffy years, but they seemed more choice than struggle. I no longer doubt his future -- or his present.

Direct comparison to Calleja is probably unfair to both. The thread of opulent sound that makes him always the center of the world is Calleja's advantage over pretty much everyone, but Filianoti's plangent tenor well grounds his complete, serious, and more familiarly dark portrayal of the Romantic poet. Calleja's Hoffmann was, on the whole, sunnier: more than a touch naive in his ever-renewed sincerity and love, he honestly could not (well) see each blow coming. Filianoti's physical and musical expressions show a more tortured soul, who jumps at each attachment half-fearing and half-expecting some familiar yet shattering disaster.

The darkness of Filianoti's Hoffmann colors the whole show, but the heroines -- three new eastern Europeans -- fit the new scheme. For Elena Mosuc (whose debut this was) this was unfortunate, because Olympia really should be more outrageously colorful. Mosuc has the notes but is still an iffy fit: the voice has a nice womanliness and is strongest below the trick top, making her probably a nice exponent of human roles (she's singing Liu and Mimi elsewhere!) but not much of a mechanical chirper. Nor does she seem a natural comedienne, being rather more earthbound with the funny robot business than Kathleen Kim (last season), Natalie Dessay, and other predecessors. Between this and Filianoti's seriousness, some of the first act's wild sparkle -- so evident in the original run -- was lost.

But the Antonia of Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava was superb. If Anna Netrebko could sing in tune... And get through the starting aria... And have a bit less bludgeoning power but also less coarseness... Ah, forget the comparison. Gerzmava's is a live soprano voice, a bit but not hugely Slavic (more like the much-missed Anja Harteros, perhaps), and pretty spacious (with some reserved force). She started out pretty but conventional and warmed up to a deeply moving death scene: one to watch.

Albanian mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa, a late replacement for Olga Borodina as Giulietta, did well in as the third-act heroine, as did Joel Sorensen as the four servants. The other major parts -- Nicklausse/the Muse and the four villains -- were familiar Met faces Kate Lindsey and Ildar Abdrazakov, singing to their usual high standard. Abdrazakov really relishes these satanic roles -- he was a better Mephistopheles than Rene Pape -- and he doesn't try to match his predecessor Alan Held for sheer dark intensity because he doesn't have to. The personal and vocal force he now commands shines throughout the show as a satanic contrast to Hoffmann and his Muse.

New conductor Patrick Fournillier shaped the piece well. Despite the relative lack of contrasting Act I joy-in-absurdity with this cast, the evening adds up to quite a lot.

(For thoughts on the production, see last season's post.)

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.

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