An inspired cast makes trippy magic in Met’s colorful “Hoffmann”
The retirement of some of the Metropolitan Opera’s long-running productions in recent years has not been received warmly in all corners. Decades-old Toscas and Rings have been replaced during the Peter Gelb era with stagings more suited to modernist sensibilities, often to the consternation of the Met’s traditionalist base.
Through that lens, it’s interesting to wonder whether Bartlett Sher’s 2009 production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann will receive its own rabid defense in twenty years or so. It certainly seems a likely candidate to stick around. For one thing, Michael Yeargan’s colorful and imaginative sets and Catherine Zuber’s lavish—not to mention numerous—costumes make this staging almost as opulent, in its own trippy way, as many of Franco Zeffirelli’s imaginings. To replace them anytime soon would appear an extravagant waste.
Moreover, it has become a house favorite, presenting a disturbing but captivating distillation of Jules Barbier’s fanciful libretto. In Sher’s creation, Hoffmann’s stories of three past lovers, brought to life by turns with blinding colors, eerie visions, and aggressive eroticism, seem the dark product of a fever dream.
The piece’s dramatic integrity was thrown for a bit of a loop in its return to the Met on Monday. Hibla Gerzmava was originally slated to sing all of the heroines. Though certainly not unheard of, the feat—which supports the text by wrapping the three women into one obsessive romantic fixation—is still rare enough that it was a bit of a letdown when, late last summer, it was announced that Gerzmava would sing only Antonia (and the token part of Stella), having retired the two other roles from her repertoire.
The tradeoff, though, is the opportunity to choose singers specifically for the other two roles, the courtesan Giulietta and especially the automaton Olympia. In the hands of a true coloratura, the “Doll Song” can become an operatic mini-event of its own, with elaborate ornamentation shooting up into the stratosphere (leading some sourpuss conductors to insist the aria be performed exactly as printed).
Erin Morley is such a soprano, and Yves Abel is apparently the sort of conductor inclined to say “Go to town!” Morley’s performance was one of those wonderful occasions marked by what seems like a constant giggle from the audience, evoked as much at the sheer, joyous absurdity of the vocal gymnastics as at the comedy of the dramatic scenario. In the second verse she climbed the ladder at every turn, barely missing a rung—her coloratura rippled, and each note that she snatched off the ceiling landed like a flashbulb. All this while maintaining a candied tone and affecting the nightmarish pink cutesiness of Sher’s conception.
Morley’s was just one of a number of bravura performances put together by Monday’s excellent cast. The Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo has a vocal intensity that can easily overpower some lighter roles, but that fire served him well in portraying the romantic poet Hoffmann. From his very first offering, “Il était une fois,” there was an electric thrill in his voice that never tired. When he tried to slip into a high pianissimo, he would inevitably hit a snag, but when singing at full voice, which was most of the time, his high-octane tone showed not a blemish. In his love songs to the women, he truly seemed a man driven to the edge of reason by passion.
Kate Lindsey reprised the role of the Muse (masquerading as Nicklausse), which she played at this production’s unveiling in 2009. The only frustration with her performance is that her voice is small for the house, occasionally making it difficult to appreciate the fabulous work she was doing. Her singing was gorgeous from curtain to curtain, her smooth tone adding honey to everything she sang. She was a charming and sympathetic presence dramatically, displaying a strong comedic sense and remaining emotionally invested in the scene even when all she had to do was watch.
Christine Rice, filling out the role of Giulietta, had a voluptuous, milky, slightly wobbly voice that fit the part but did not leave a major impression. Gerzmava acquitted herself well enough, bringing a generous, silken tone to Antonia’s arias, particularly the ravishing “Elle a fui, la tourtelle!” She was a solid, if reserved, romantic match for Grigolo, showing earnest affection but appearing overly lethargic otherwise, even for the ailing character. David Pittsinger sang with a rich Bordeaux tone as her father Crespel, and the comedic antics of Tony Stevenson stood out in his portrayals of the four servants.
It’s hard to know what to say about Thomas Hampson these days. The veteran baritone simply does not have the powerful voice that he once did, and his portrayals of the four villains seemed to be for dramatic effect only. There was a brusqueness about his sound and a subtle malice in his demeanor that gave him an outsized presence, particularly as the vile Dr. Miracle, but when he was finally called on to sing the aria “Scintille, diamant,” he sounded taxed, his tone coming out breathy.
Even with all the scholarly debate over what constitutes an “authentic” representation of the score, the quirkiness and variety of Offenbach’s music were always evident, and Abel seemed to relish every twist and turn, drawing strong, evocative playing from the orchestra. Here and there he allowed a singer to race ahead, or struggled to keep a lid on his players (somehow managing to cover the chorus in the prologue’s raucous drinking song), but on the whole his direction enriched and enlivened the music, conjuring up dark magic from the pit.
Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs through March 21 at the Metropolitan opera. A second cast, starring Matthew Polenzani, Laurent Naouri, and Susanna Phillips, with James Levine conducting, opens on February 28. metopera.org